Is Liev Schreiber cursed? No matter how likeable the actor is, it seems he’s always stuck in some weird soulless movie which makes you wish he could escape and find his way into a better movie. This makes his new film—The Last Days on Mars—a fitting metaphor for his career: soulless space zombies (analogs for terrible films) try to kill poor Liev, while he endures anxiety-inducing flashbacks to a mistake he made on a space station (the rest of his career) before the film began. What’s frustrating about The Last Days on Mars? Well, sadly, it’s not that it could have been good. With a script like this, there’s no way it even orbits the planet “good.” Instead, what’s rough about the Last Days on Mars, is you keep wishing it was actually worse.
With an indie production pedigree ranging from The Irish Film Board, to The British Film Institute, to Magnolia Pictures, you’d think The Last Days on Mars might be director Ruairi Robinson’s answer to Duncan Jones’s Moon, but there you’d be wrong. While Moon is a meditative indie science fiction movie which falls prey to a few tropes and clichés, The Last Days on Mars goes cliché whole-hog from the beginning. Between watching Stranded, Gravity, and now this, I feel like I keep seeing the same disaster-in-space-movie over and over again, albeit, at different gradients of narrative quality. If there was an infographic titled PEOPLE BREATHING HEAVILY IN SPACE SUITS IN MOVIES RELEASED IN 2013—with Gravity on the “excellent” side of the scale and Stranded on the “terribly incompetent” side—Last Days on Mars would fall directly in the middle, with the ranking of “boring.” Not only is the film predictable, but it seems to barely try to accept its premise.
I hate to be like this, but did this movie need to have zombies in it at all? As the movie began, I felt myself settling into that emotional armchair in my brain which generally means, yeah, I’m going to like this. And that’s because the production value of the movie is pretty good, the cast is fantastic (Olivia Williams from Rushmore! Romala Garai from Scoop! Liev!) and any movie that’s about what happens to people like 19 hours before they leave Mars has a pretty good set-up, at least in my book. In fact, this is pretty much the exact same initial set-up as what is possibly my favorite Doctor Who episode ever: “The Waters of Mars.” Thinking about that one, if you want to appreciate the efficient and exciting writing of Who’s Russell T. Davies in a whole new way, then look no further than The Last Days on Mars. For what would take Davies 45 seconds of character exposition, screenwriter Clive Dawson uses up about 45 minutes; the film is painfully slow to start.
And why? What’s the point of going so slow here? It doesn’t have the class or style of Alien to slowly reveal there are going to be Mars zombies, so why bother with the slow burn? Instead, the gradual “build-up” to the “revelation” that Mars zombies are going to eat Liev Schreiber feels mildly insulting. Plus, the zombies are so generic, that I imagine they’ve even be kicked out of “Thriller” parodies. Sure, they’re fast, but all zombies are fast now, right?
If you think fast-Mars-zombies can be scary, a la a kind of 28 Days Later IN SPACE!, you’re probably right. But not in this movie. Instead, they’re just unstoppable, stupid, and gruesome, and boring. Exactly like most movies of this kind. Which is where I feel like the movie starts eating itself: almost zero chances are taken in this film, at least in regard to zombie tropes. No one ever wants to admit they’re infected until they’re too late, and everybody can be infected pretty easily. They way we thought we could kill the zombies turns out to be temporary and everyone is so doomed from the beginning, it’s actually a little funny. And by funny, I do mean unintentionally, because like the bizarre downer Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Last Days on Mars also decides in the end that EVERYONE DIES. Sure, after becoming the lone survivor of the whole zombie attack, Liev orbits Mars and records a message which indicates he might get picked up and saved. But, by the way, just wait a second, he also might be infected, so maybe don’t bother.
You know, I loved it in Sideways when the movie just ended with Paul Giamatti knocking on Virginia Madsen’s door. I also like the way The Black Hole ends: are they in another universe? Are they okay? Is anything going to be the same anymore? Too bad, the movie is over! Decide for yourself. On the other end of the spectrum is the afore mentioned Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which, yes (spoilers) the ENTIRE EARTH GETS BLOWN UP WITH ZERO SURVIORS. So, what does The Last Days on Mars do with its ending? I’d say it’s playing for a Sideways meets Beneath the Planet of the Apes type-of-ending; everyone dies or…wait, maybe not?
So, what does Bill Murray say to Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation? Oh, I know—TELL LIEV SCHREIBER TO WATCH OUT FOR THE MARS ZOMBIES!
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.