Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Last Days On Mars

Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, and Goran Kostic

Director: Ruairi Robinson

94 minutes (15) 2013
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2

Rating: 4/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

On Mars “a shrunken sun sank below the horizon and darkness came. Stars gleamed hard and bright through the tenuous atmosphere. A meteor dug a small crater under the palest of moonlight.” In his introduction to New Writings In SF #13 (1968), John Carnell comments, “once, many years ago, the author Sydney J. Bounds worked in the engineering department of London’s Underground system but gave it up for the more precarious life of a full-time writer.” By the time I met Bounds in his book-crammed Kingston-upon-Thames home, he was surviving proudly and impecuniously as a professional story-smith by a strategy of writing at an impressive rate for every available market. Royalties from movie-rights would at least have enabled him to buy a newer typewriter. But he died on 24th November 2006, before this adaptation of his short story went into production.

Archivist Roy Kettle points out that “Bounds didn’t write many novels – just five, but he wrote 100+ short stories which almost invariably appeared only in British SF magazines and original anthologies. However, rather out of the blue, one of his stories, The Animators, was picked up and made into The Last Days On Mars in 2013 (a few years after his death). I rather think it was because the screenwriter, Clive Dawson, spotted it in the anthology where it first appeared because he had the book for the reprint of Arthur Porges’ The Ruum which, apparently, he’d hoped that Hammer Films would make with his screenplay.”

The anthology – Tales Of Terror From Outer Space (1975) was a Fontana paperback original edited by that devotee of the esoteric and the macabre, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, as part of his Tales Of Terror anthology series. And it’s startlingly good, with more than a passing glance at our Red Planet solar system neighbour. Ray Bradbury’s I, Mars introduces the escalating madness of the last survivor of a Mars colony haunted by phone calls from his earlier self. Then Robert Bloch’s carny huckster Ace Clawson gets devoured by a real-life Girl From Mars. For just the 45p cover-price there’s also Bob Shaw, Brian Aldiss’ breathtakingly audacious Heresies Of The Huge God, Ralph Williams’ The Head-Hunters (from Stories For Tomorrow, 1956) anticipating the Predator movies franchise, Robert Sheckley, and Arthur C. Clarke, as well as Porges’ nail-bitingly tense thriller The Ruum (reprinted from The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1952) – with prospector Jim Irwin relentlessly pursued by an implacable alien weapon left behind in the Canadian Rockies some hundred-million years ago.

The Animators comes around midpoint, previously unpublished, but later picked up and reprinted in Creepies, Creepies, Creepies edited by Helen Hoke (Franklin Watts, 1977). And Ruairi Robinson’s movie shows the advantage of taking an 11-page short story and expanding it, rather than attempting to compress a full novel down to movie-length. There are some minor switches in the interests of racial diversity and visual appeal, a couple of gender reassignments to Bounds’ originally white all-male personnel, but the plot development holds together remarkably well during its transfer to the big screen. The deserts of Jordan stand in for the Martian landscape, with occasional vegetation digitally removed.

“Sidney J. Bounds has had much experience in dealing with assorted horrors, as his many anthologised stories will testify, and he handles The Animators with his usual skill,” comments Chetwynd-Hayes. “The scene is set on the ill-fated planet Mars, but the end results are hell-bent for Earth.” And there are some obvious reference points, John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars (2001), where the dead spirits of an extinct Martian civilisation are unleashed to possess the bodies of the miners responsible for disturbing their tomb. And the David Tennant Doctor Who episode The Waters Of Mars (2009), in which a water-borne virus infects and corrupts the human colonists of the bio-dome, which must be destroyed before the ‘Flood’ contagion can reach Earth. Although it’s worth bearing in mind that Bounds story precedes them both, and teases around the rim of speculation. Nothing as outrĂ© as extinct Martian cities, merely the possibility of long-dormant microbiological organisms suspended deep beneath the regolith for the millions of years since the warmer wetter Mars that NASA Rover-probes indicate.

The jaunty tones of Jack Hylton’s Blue Skies Are Around The Corner (1938) deliberately contrasts the gathering storm-front beneath authentically dour Martian skies, dust-waves of “the first big one of the season” approaching to engulf Tantalus Base One in which the eight-strong crew have been sitting out their six-month stay... with the 19 remaining hours ticking away before they’re lifted off to the orbiting ‘Aurora’ for “six-months home in a floating coffin.” Until the darkness closes in, Mars swallowing up the puny human toe-hold on the world, leaving only the airlock lens illuminated to resemble a single prescient eye.

Meanwhile, in a last-minute ruse before nightfall, Marko Petrovic (Bosnian-Serb actor Goran Kostic) returns to investigate the test-site of an earlier bore-sample that seems to indicate the presence of ancient microscopic bacterial life. Intent on keeping the discovery for himself he uses the pretext of fixing a broken sensor. Richard Harrington watches him from the clunky Mars Bug, until he’s shocked to see a sinkhole opening up to swallow the geologist. Using the second Bug, an already irritably fraying Captain Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas), is “barely holding it together” as he and Lauren Dalby (Yusra Warsama) prepare to undertake a rescue. Dalby disobeys protocol and climbs down the pit. She also disappears. Both of them are dead, but not for long. Soon, there are two sets of footprints leading away from the pit.

Liev Schreiber, who plays Vincent Campbell, has a heavyweight CV that includes the Scream horror trilogy. Welsh-born writer-actor Tom Cullen – who plays Harrington, also has presence and some impressive movie credits, including an episode (The Entire History Of You) of TV’s Black Mirror and – for those who like that sort of thing, the faux class-nostalgia of Downton Abbey. Olivia Williams – who plays vexed confrontationally-barbed colleague Kim Aldrich, worked with Roman Polanski on The Ghost Writer (2010). They are part of a strong cast. The eerie rasp of over-exerted breathing inside helmets is effective, as is the claustrophobic hallucinatory descent into the sinkhole’s soft-focus darkness.

In Bounds’ story it is Shorty Pugh’s body that Harrington retrieved from the pit, and buries in a shallow grave. Exposure to the bacteria reanimates the corpse. “Then, slowly, it set out across the flat and desolate land with plodding steps. A naked dead thing that moved across the night-dark dust, moved steadily on a direct course for the distant Base.” In the movie the shattered helmet results in the same condition, unsuited zombies Marko and Dalby cross the rift valley back towards base with driller-killer instinct. But, although there’s a fair amount of furious action-hazard, the space helmets and chaotic red-light alert-strobing sometimes limits expressiveness and make it difficult to tell who’s doing what to whom, or why. And there’s no clear confrontation with the reanimated dead, just hints and glimpses of charred and rotting features obfuscated behind shattered face-visors. Where more clarity would help punch out the story there’s no gratuitous shock-horror, no Walking Dead or Z Nation moments. No George A. Romero zombies.

Brunel is wounded – Kim’s microscope betrays the bacterial cell-division infection in his bloodstream, his face tracked with shadow-lines of contagion, before he turns violent, and dies. Taking the precaution of strapping his body down, they inject an antidote, he twitches against his restraints, but the retroviral effect is temporary. The survivors retreat from the resulting mayhem to the hydroponics dome, using a conduit to return through blood-trails and wreckage to transmit a sky-link Mayday distress-call to the orbital ISC Mission Control, only to be pursued back by the zombie Marko. “I was planning on taking a lot of unnecessary risks,” quips Campbell with bitter irony.

Eventually only three remain – Vincent Campbell, Rebecca Lane (male expedition metallurgist in Bounds’ tale, now played by Romola Garai), and panicky mission psychologist Robert Irwin (British actor Johnny Harris of The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, 2009) escaping across the Mars night in a solar-powered Bug with battery-power dropping, intent on reaching the lift-off point, with that hanging Cold Equation that she’s infected. “It’s too late for her,” protests Irwin. Should they leave her? Campbell says no. She resolves the dilemma by running off and suicides by removing her helmet. Following her footprints in Mars-sand, Campbell reluctantly stoves her head in with a stone to pre-empt her reanimation.

A significant difference here is that in the short story Brunel is the last die, and “later, no longer human, he joined the living dead aboard the ship. It rose into the purple sky on a column of flame and on course for Earth.” The movie is a little more nuanced. Campbell arrives at the shuttle lost in swirling dust, only to find that the zombies got there first, leaving a trail of dead. As they ascend to orbit, he struggles with an infected Irwin, before ejecting him through the airlock. Little spheres of tainted blood float in space. “This must end here. We can’t let it get back to Earth,” he insists. Campbell messages his report, and prepares to burn up on re-entry. Mars must remain a quarantined world. Unless Mission Control rescues him first..?

No blue skies around the corner. As an adaptation of Bounds’ story, it would have been nice if the film could have been a tad better. But would Syd have approved? Chances are he would. He’d certainly have enjoyed becoming part of the Universal Studios continuity back to Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. And at least it would have enabled him to buy a newer typewriter.

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