The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Last Days on Mars

The unknown is almost always scarier than the known. What's behind that door? What creatures and secrets do the depths of the ocean hold? What about the far reaches of space? For me, especially watching movies, the mystery proves far more interesting than the actual reveal. The revelation can be forced, contrived, far too familiar or just not very good, like 2013's The Last Days on Mars, a potential-filled science fiction film that never creates its own identity.

Having served a tour at the Tantalus Base on Mars, an eight-man astronaut and scientific crew is just hours away from being relieved so they can begin the six-month trip back to Earth. One of the crew, a scientist named Marko (Goran Kostic), has made a startling discovery but with time running out he convinces the base captain, Brunel (Elias Koteas), to let him go out and explore one of their dig sites. Listening back at base over a transmission, the crew hears some sort of explosion and screaming but don't know exactly what happened. Racing out to the site, Brunel and one of his lead technicians, Vince (Liev Schreiber), are stunned at what they find. A huge hole has appeared in the ground, Marko's body seemingly down at the bottom. When Vince goes down to investigate, Marko's body isn't there. What exactly is going on?

I love a good science fiction movie. I don't necessarily like being scared when I watch a movie, but if I'm going to go along with it, this is the type of movie in terms of style. The unknown, the mysterious, the possibility of something unstoppable and terrifying, now that's scary. This sci-fi flick from director Ruairi Robinson is based off a short story called The Animators from author Sydney J. Bound. It doesn't overstay its welcome at just 98 minutes. Released last fall, it received a very limited theatrical release, received uniformly negative reviews and in the end is just sorta there. It isn't good, and it isn't bad. 'Mars' has its moments, but for the most part, it never does enough to distinguish itself from several other like-minded science fiction films.

Ah, that mystery. The build-up, that unknown, that possibility of anything, it's a powerful motivator in a story like this, and it doesn't have to be science fiction. Thrillers, dramas, it just works. I don't want to give too much away in terms of spoilers, but I'll give 'Mars' credit. The twist and the reveal works. What Marko finds somewhere in Mars' soil is genuinely creepy because....let's face it. It could happen. There's so much going on in space and its reaches that we can never really know what to expect. The twist is all well and good. It works, but in taking it forward, the execution just isn't there. The rest of the story plays like a knockoff of countless other better science fiction films from John Carpenter's The Thing to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What this science/astronaut expedition finds on Mars threatens mankind, our existence itself if it escapes. It should work better in that sense. A small group of people fighting for their own survival, but also fighting for something bigger. That formula never quite gels.

With an ensemble cast, there's some recognizable names, some recognizable faces and a couple folks you just know are fodder waiting to be knocked off. Schreiber is the biggest name and the star, his Vincent Campbell a talented engineer who's struggling with some inner demons. Like the rest of the cast though, the script does him no favors. We get mentions of family, of wives and kids, of lives left behind on Earth, but it never translates to form any personal interest in these people. You're rooting for them because they're in a hellish situation, but that's all with no emotional investment. Koteas represents himself well as the base captain, trying to hold his crew together. Also standing out from the group is Olivia Williams is Kim, the hard-edged scientist who doesn't hold back her opinions, tough though they may be. In addition to Kostic as the selfish Marko, look for Romola Garai (Lane), Johnny Harris (the worrisome, selfish Irwin), Tom Cullen (Harrington), and Yusra Warsama (Dalby).

 Disappointing end result here, and maybe because it was just too familiar. When the twist is revealed, the momentum should pick up, but it doesn't. It limps to the finish line. The only real mystery is who will survive but even that can be pretty predictable. Too familiar, too cliched, and not willing to take any real risks. A good-looking, creepy, eerie movie at times that never comes together.

The Last Days on Mars (2013): **/****

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