Toronto After Dark’s sci-fi night got kicked off with the tense thriller, Last Days On Mars. An international crew of scientists an astronauts has been living in a small research colony on the surface of Mars for the past six months, conducting experiments and searching for signs of life. With less than a day to go before their pick-up team arrives to return them to Earth and let another crew take over, one researcher, Marko (Goran Kostic), believes he has stumbled across something huge – the fossilized remains of a bacterial life form. Marko lies to the station commander, Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas) about why he needs to go back out before the sun sets, and heads off to collect more samples with fellow crew member, Richard Harrington (Tom Cullen). When the ground gives way beneath him, however, Marko is plunged into a deep pit, and Harrington – unable to reach Marko – is forced to call for help. What starts out as an attempt to reclaim the body of their crew member turns to disaster as darkness falls, a second member of the team goes missing, and the rest are no longer certain that they are the only ones alive on the planet.
Starring Liev Schreiber as the haunted Vincent, Last Days On Mars is a small budget indie film with big aspirations. It very much put me in mind of the Alien franchise right from the start, but since I knew very little going into it, I wasn’t expecting the particular threat faced by the characters in the film. The cast is rounded out by the likes of Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, Johnny Harris and Yusra Warsama, and it’s through their squabbling that we are first introduced to the world created on the screen. They are like Big Brother set on Mars, in a way, as they are all supposed to be working together to achieve a common goal, but they’ve been stuck together for far too long, and some if not all would like to attain any final glory for themselves, if they can manage it, rather than share credit with the team. When disaster strikes, however, the survivors pull together to try and unite against the common threat, even as their numbers steadily decline in the onslaught.
In a world where just opening a door to the outside while not wearing the proper equipment can mean certain death, the tension is already at a certain level from the start of the film, and just increases from there. When full dark comes, what you can’t see is almost as terrifying as what you can, and there isn’t always time to think things through before making a decision. Some shakey handheld shots give a quick idea of what the flashlight beams reveal before all is plunged into powerless darkness once again. And all the while, the clock counts down to the time when the landing ship from the orbiting Aurora will come to spirit them back to Earth. What began as a retrieval has now become a rescue mission for whichever members of the research team are still alive by dawn.