Based on Sydney J Bounds’ 1975 short story, The Animators, the film focuses not on landing on Mars, but on the crew’s last day of a six-month mission. After six-months, a lot of things have begun to break, including the crew’s nerves. And that is what makes this movie special – its examination of the human psyche under pressure.
The hero of the story is senior systems engineer Vincent Campbell, played by Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan, Lee Daniels’ The Butler). Within the first few minutes of the film we realize that Campbell, whom the crew is dependent upon to keep things running, is suffering from a potentially debilitating psychological problem. His battle to overcome his inner daemons is paralleled in the crew’s battle against the daemons they discover on Mars.
The screenplay by Clive Dawson (The Bunker, The Bill) is a tutorial for screenwriters. As I watched the film, I had mixed feeling at first. The plot is quite similar to Europa Report which premiered at this year’s LA Film Festival and I kept being reminded of Alien and The Thing. What these films share in common is the uber-genre which screenwriting guru Blake Snyder (Save the Cat) identifies as “Monster in the House”. In these films a small group of people are trapped in a confined space with something that wants to kill them. Dawson has mastered this genre.
Director Ruairí Robinson, this was his first feature, and editor Peter Lambert (The Twilight Saga: New Moon) also deserve credit for keeping the film tight and exciting. I watched the screener for this film on my PC, and I could see the tiny progress bar move across the bottom of the monitor as the film progressed. It showed me that the film was hitting the beats needed for a successful Hollywood-style film at exactly the right places (see professor Eric Edson’s The Story Solution: 23 Actions All Great Heroes Must Take).
Besides Schreiber’s performance as the hero, the rest of the cast also deserves praise. The characters are sharply drawn and each personifies aspects of the human condition.
Romola Garai (Vanity Fair) plays the heroes’ mentor and love interest, a love which never gets beyond holding hands, but is real none-the-less. As everything begins to deteriorate around her, she personifies strength and is the only one who tries to hold everything together.
Elias Koteas (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) plays the captain of the mission. His failing is that he has become too friendly with his crew, rather than remaining their leader, thereby enabling the weaknesses of the others to manifest themselves. Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense) plays one of the geologists tasked with finding life on Mars. She is the mirror of Koteas’ character, so focused on the mission that she alienates and loses the trust of the rest of the crew. Goran Kostic (Taken) plays the other geologist whose arrogance and deceit start the chain of events that lead to tragedy. Johnny Harris (Snow White and the Huntsman) plays the crew psychologist, personifying the powerlessness of modern psychology against real problems. Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey) and Yusra Warsama (Dracula, the TV series) also give impressive performances, being the youngest members of the crew and trying to deal with guilt and lack of confidence.
It is that interplay of tortured souls that makes this movie so good. Yes, it is a familiar sci-fi genre, some of the scenes seem somewhat derivative, but the story is really about the human spirit, its failings and its triumphs. It is both technically and emotionally an exciting journey.
The Last Days on Mars, an official selection of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival Director’s Fortnight, rated “R”, is available now on iTunes and on demand and opens in theaters December 6, 2013.