'Last Days' a mixed-up mess of genre tropes

Updated 12/12/2013 6:11 AM
  • Commander Robinson (Liev Schreiber) and a medic (Romola Garai) help an infected astronaut (Elias Koteas) in the sci-fi horror film "The Last Days on Mars."

    Commander Robinson (Liev Schreiber) and a medic (Romola Garai) help an infected astronaut (Elias Koteas) in the sci-fi horror film "The Last Days on Mars."

"The Last Days on Mars," Ruairi Robinson's messed-up mash-up of horror and science fiction, stars Liev Schreiber as the commander of a space mission aborted by a sudden outbreak of homicidal, reanimated decomposed astronauts.

With 19 hours to go on a six-month-long mission on Mars (information constantly hammered into us by the prologue and repetitive dialogue), a scientist (Goran Kostic) at the Mars Tantalus base discovers evidence of living bacteria on the surface.

Preferring to hog the credit for himself, the scientist disregards orders by Commander Campbell (Schreiber) and heads off to secure samples before a marsquake causes him to fall into what appears to be a bottomless pit.

Campbell dispatches a rescue team. Something very wrong happens, and before the commander can shout "Don't open the bay doors!" the formerly human astronauts -- now resembling Mathilda May's emaciated, soul-zapped victims from "Lifeforce" -- have breached security and are in full Jason Voorhees kill mode.

For an obviously low-budget production, "Last Days on Mars" boasts some impressive visual effects and exceptional art design owing big debts to "Alien" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

The rest of "Last Days" can't hold up to those standards, not even Robbie Ryan's jittery, hand-held camera work that might have some viewers reaching for Dramamine.

Clive Dawson's screenplay (adapted from a short story titled "The Animators" by Sydney J. Bounds) gives us familiar stock characters: the unflappable leader; the smarty-pants scientist (Olivia Williams) nobody likes; a cute and vulnerable medic (Romola Garai) who might have a thing for the boss; the sacrificial nice guy (Elias Koteas) who croaks early in the game; the other ill-defined crew members who might as well be wearing red shirts in a "Star Trek" episode.

Then there's the one attempt to give Campbell some personality and personal demons to tame by having him suffer horrific, fuzzy flashbacks to what appears to be the circular space station in "2001."

I never quite grasped why these vague flashbacks traumatized the commander into a pile of emo mush. Garai abruptly appears in one of them to help him, thereby creating the film's single solid thread of character connection.

The actors (especially the reliable Schreiber and the piercing Williams) acquit themselves quite well, despite being stuck playing living characters possessed of all the depth and complexity of the formerly dead ones.

"The Last Days on Mars" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago. Rated R for language and violence. 91 minutes. ★

• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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