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Review: ‘The Last Days On Mars’ and “The Hobbit: Desolation Of Smaug’

Mars Or Middle-earth This Weekend

Things go wrong for the first manned mission to Mars in

Credit: Magnet Releasing

Above: Things go wrong for the first manned mission to Mars in "The Last Days on Mars."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "The Last Days on Mars."


This weekend at the movies you can travel to Middle Earth by way of “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” (opened at midnight last night throughout San Diego or to Mars courtesy of the indie film “The Last Days on Mars” (playing one week only at Landmark's Ken Cinema December 13 to 19).

The Last Days on Mars

Small budget sci-fi films often yield rich results as with the recent “Moon” and “Another Earth.” A lack of funds can inspire creativity by forcing a focus on ideas over effects. That’s why “The Last Days on Mars” looked good. First time director Ruairi Robinson cleverly used the Jordanian desert as a stand in for Mars and presented an intriguing story about the first manned mission to the red planet going wrong when a life form is discovered. Although the mission leader advises caution, the warning comes too late. The life form turns out to be a bacteria that infects the crew with terrifying results.

The film boasts a strong cast led by Liv Schrieber. The performances are all believable but the script comes up short. The film fails to develop into either a smart exploration of ideas (like “Moon,” “Another Earth,” “Primer”) or a lean thriller about the dangers of an alien planet {like “Pitch Black”). It’s not a bad film, just a bland one that serves up formula with no innovations or stylistic flair.

The shame of it is that in addition to wasting a good cast, Robinson also wastes some fine production design and the Jordanian dessert. The film has a good look and the things that the bacteria turns the crew into are fittingly disturbing. But it is so routinely handled that you wonder why Robinson was inspired to make the film.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Martin Freeman returns as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug."

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

On the other side of the financial spectrum, “Hobbit” director Peter Jackson finally puts his massive budget to good use in the second installment of his latest Middle Earth trilogy, “The Desolation of Smaug.”

The first film, “An Unexpected Journey,” left many fans of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy underwhelmed. Jackson proposed to make three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively slim children’s book “The Hobbit.” The trilogy approach made sense in adapting Tolkien’s three “Lord of the Rings” books, which were geared to an older audience. But “The Hobbit” felt unnecessarily dragged out as a three-film series. “An Unexpected Journey” offered a great central performance by Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins but then took a very long time to go short distance. This journey left plenty of nap time for viewers.

The sequel, “The Desolation of Smaug,” improves on the first film with more lively storytelling and better use of state of the art technology. But the two films could have easily been condensed into one tighter, better made film. The film still falls far below the quality of the “Lord of the Rings” films. There are some painful moments when the film feels more like a theme park ride than a movie, mostly as the dwarves ride the rapids down in wine barrels. But at least this time out the film provides a greater sense of forward movement and things happening.

We pick up the story as the dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their journey to reclaim the dwarf homeland of Erebor, from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo, who still has possession of the mysterious ring, has been brought along to steal a sacred stone from Smaug’s vast treasures.

The film benefits from having its best scenes at the end so that you feel more forgiving of its earlier flaws. The film comes together with the scenes involving the dragon Smaug. Jackson and his technical crew bring Smaug to magnificent evil life and reminds us what it’s like to look up at the screen in awe. Benedict Cumberbatch adds to the delight with his slithering, menacing voicing of Smaug. The effects crew make Smaug believable as a huge beast that can move with either great care through his subterranean abode or with careless abandon crashing through walls. It’s a contrast to some of the other CGI work in the film where the creatures have that weightless, defiance of physics look that tends to pull you out of the fantasy world and remind you that you are just watching a movie. But they take more care with Smaug and deliver a creature that is mesmerizing on screen. But then I have to confess to being in love with dragons.

So this weekend, make travel plans for Middle Earth rather than Mars.

Companion viewing for "The Last Days on Mars:" "The Andromeda Strain," "The Angry Red Planet," "The Martian Chronicles," “Pitch Black,” “Moon

Companion viewing for “The Desolation of Smaug:” The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, BBC “Sherlock” with Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson, “Dragonslayer”

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