With funding cuts and declining interest, NASA has seen better days. Two recent films suggest it might be for the best, as they demonstrate that outer space exploration doesn’t solve mundane problems but only intensifies them. The earthly ills of international squabbling and environmental pollution, and the existential anxieties about loneliness and the meaning of life weigh down the astronauts in “Gravity.” And in Irish director Ruairí Robinson’s low-budget, highly predictable, but well-acted Red Planet thriller “The Last Days on Mars,” a scientific research team in search of life only finds the problems of their own earthly existence tossed back at them: jealousy, ambition, cowardice, loneliness, phobias, and the inevitable plague of flesh-eating zombies.
But first, there is boredom. Things have been quiet at Tantalus (not very promising to name your base after a guy doomed to perpetual hunger and thirst) for months, as the expedition crew has scoured the Martian wasteland (actually the Jordanian desert) in vain for signs of life. Now, down to the last 19 hours of the mission, they are ready to wrap things up — if only they weren’t all unraveling.
After spending so much time together with little other than their own frustrations and neuroses to amuse themselves, the crew has begun to implode. Vincent (Liev Schreiber), the senior systems engineer who suffers from claustrophobia, dreads the return trip and the prospect of suffering the same anxiety attack that paralyzed him on the flight over. Rebecca (Romola Garai), Vincent’s best friend, acts the mother hen to the others, but her good nature is wearing thin. Charles (Elias Koteas), the captain, is too much of a nice guy to crack the whip when, say, Richard (Tom Cullen), the youngest crewman, gets drunk and freaks out. He doesn’t get much help from psychological welfare officer Robert (Johnny Harris), who seems a bit of a weasel with a yellow streak. And everyone hates Kim (Olivia Williams), the nasty no-nonsense geologist who is especially bummed out that the mission was a bust. Two other researchers share her disappointment — Kim’s archrival Marko (Goran Kostic) and his fiercely loyal girlfriend Lauren (Yusra Warsama). But Marko has just made a bombshell discovery — traces of bacteria in the permafrost — and he makes an excuse to sneak out one last time to confirm his findings.
When Marko returns from his expedition, he’s not looking too good, and the rest don’t heed the warnings of Kim, the only person who seems to be familiar with the hundreds of films from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) to “World War Z” (2013) that have dealt with similar themes (well, it is 2036 — maybe the zombie trend in pop culture has died out). Robinson no doubt knows the literature, too, and though there is some irony in having the microbes that undid the Martian invaders in “War of the Worlds” now become the Martian invaders themselves, the film otherwise does nothing more with its wealth of references than trot them out with dull predictability. “Last Days” aspires to the kind of no-frills, psychological terror of Duncan Jones’s brilliant “Moon” (2009) but, despite some determined performances, settles for the clichés of the abortive “Apollo 18” (2011).Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.