The Last Days On Mars had its world premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, in the Director’s Fortnight—a sidebar known for programming challenging, unconventional work. Is the title perhaps metaphorical? Nope, this film is actually set on the planet Mars. So it must be a uniquely creative attempt at low-budget sci-fi, maybe something along the lines of Duncan Jones’ Moon,right? Bzzt. It’s a completely generic horror film. Well, at the very least, given its selection for the world’s most prestigious film festival, the movie must feature a game-changing monster that gives H.R. Giger a run for his money, no? No. Here’s what it has: space zombies. People who have died and then inexplicably come back to shambling, robotic, murderous life… in space. Because, while everyone’s sick to death of zombies at this point, it’s a whole different ball game when they’re wreaking havoc one planet further from the sun.
In the best schlock tradition, The Last Days On Mars has its heroes encounter trouble at the last possible moment, for maximum ostensible pathos. With just 19 hours remaining on their six-month mission, the crew of a manned expedition to Mars is looking forward to heading home, but one foolhardy scientist (Goran Kostic) has just discovered possible signs of life and insists on heading out to investigate. A fissure that opens up in the ground without warning apparently kills him, but hours later he reappears at the base, looking less than human, and proceeds to kill everyone he encounters, infecting them at the same time. Before long, the undead outnumber the survivors, leaving stalwart regular-guy hero Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber) in charge of formulating a plan that will keep them alive until the replacement crew shows up. Note that part of this plan entails injecting zombies with antibiotics like penicillin, as those will surely be equally effective on bacteria from other planets. (“It can’t be that simple,” someone muses.)
Directing his first feature after garnering acclaim for several animated shorts, Irish filmmaker Ruairí Robinson has no interest in the scientific accuracy seen (for the most part) in Gravity, allowing his actors to run normally across the Martian surface as if it were, say, Jordan, where the movie was shot. (Gravity on Mars is roughly 38 percent of Earth’s—twice that of the moon, but they’d still be hopping about.) That would be nitpicking were there anything else to hold one’s attention, but the characters are all cardboard props (Elias Koteas as the gruff leader, Olivia Williams as the bitchy ballbuster, Johnny Harris as the selfish coward), the zombies are neither creepily implacable à la Romero nor frighteningly swift in the manner of the new wave, and Robinson’s go-to style for action sequences is a frenetic whirlwind of quick cuts and random angles that makes Michael Bay look like Michael Powell. Even had it premiered at, say, London’s Frightfest, The Last Day On Mars would be a disappointment. What it was doing at Cannes is a mystery.