A movie that seems to aspire to both art-house and drive-ins without quite delivering the goods required for either, “The Last Days on Mars” blends stylish art direction and a top-flight cast with a very basic monster-microbes plot.
An expedition of scientists on Mars are looking forward to the end of their stint on the angry red planet; within 24 hours, a spacecraft will be landing to take them back to Earth. Wouldn’t you know it, it’s not until that last day that brusque scientist Kim (Olivia Williams) discovers that cells are dividing within some of her soil samples, proving that life does indeed on Mars.
The bad news comes soon thereafter, when that Martian bacteria starts infecting the scientists, turning them one by one into possessed, mindless creatures driven to kill their fellow humans and allowing their corpses to host the alien contagion. Will our heroes Vincent (Liev Schreiber) and Rebecca (Romola Garai) make it off Mars safely, or will the zombified versions of their friends and co-workers do them in first?
The first 15 minutes of the film (written by Clive Dawson and directed by Ruairi Robinson, both making their feature debuts) operates in mumbly-technobabble mode, leading viewers to expect something along the lines of “Moon” or “Dark Star,” where lengthy isolation and cabin fever has affected the sanity of these astronauts.
Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that “The Last Days on Mars” is operating in “Alien” mode, down to Williams channeling a little Ellen Ripley with her cropped-off hair and tough attitude.
The actors — including Tom Cullen (“Weekend,” “Downton Abbey”) and Elias Koteas — all imbue their barely-written characters with some sense of depth; it’s not until the movie is over that we realize that they were all furiously making chicken salad out of the wispiest of scripts.
There are some memorable moments; it’s fun to watch Williams snarl her way through the movie, and Schreiber conveys palpable helpless panic as he hears terrible things happen via short-wave radio. And there’s always something to look at, with the sets designed somewhere between future-sleek and quotidian workplace.
Had “The Last Days on Mars” had the sort of artistic ambitions that matched the level of its cast, or if it had fully committed to being a fun, trashy, sci-fi monster movie, it’d be a more interesting watch. Instead, it’s neither of those things and, ultimately, a nice-looking but thoroughly forgettable interplanetary horror show.