Cannes Film Festival 2013: Last Days on Mars

This film from Irish director Ruairi Robinson shows that the galactic chamber piece can be every bit as gripping as the huge space opera

Last Days on Mars
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Director: Ruairi Robinson
Cert: G
Genre: Sci-Fi
Starring: Liev Schreiber
Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins

Last Days on Mars
Directed by Ruairi Robinson. Starring Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams, Johnny Harris. Directors' Fortnight, 91 min

Within minutes of Ruairi Robinson's impressively sober science-fiction flick kicking off, the well-informed viewer will identify which genre we are drifting towards. Last Days on Mars belongs to that school of films – pioneered by John Carpenter's Dark Star , refined by Ridley Scott's Alien – in which mismatched space travellers bicker while some malign force engineers their downfall.

The familiarity is not a problem. Shot in muddy, naturalistic shades by Robbie Ryan, Ireland's most distinguished young cinematographer, the film rearranges its pack of tropes to consistently impressive effect. Horror is rationed cautiously as the existential unease slowly escalates. The film-makers will be pleased to hear that the lady next to me hid beneath her shawl on at least four occasions.

As the title suggests, the picture takes place during the last days of an exploratory expedition to Mars. Shot largely in Jordan, Last Days on Mars manages – on a limited budget – to make a believable windswept wasteland of the red planet. As is usually the case in the Bickering Space Bloke genre, the team have long ago become bored with their mission. Then the discovery of a primitive life form gets them excited. But the spores have an unhappy effect on humans. Soon, skeletal zombies occupy the spaces where the station's operatives used to be.

Robinson follows up on the promise of his Oscar-nominated short Fifty Percent Grey with a film that works hard at racking up oppressive levels of paranoia. Clive Dawson's script does, perhaps, not flesh out the characters as effectively as one might like. But proper actors such as Liev Schreiber (stoic hero), Romola Garai (warm foil) and Olivia Williams (pseudo-Ripley) invest their roles with satisfactory degrees of dramatic energy.

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Like Duncan Jones's recent Moon , the picture confirms that, with the right personnel, the galactic chamber piece can be every bit as gripping as the hugely budgeted space opera. This Robinson fellow will go far.

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