There is life on Mars after all!

Alas, it's not very friendly.

That pretty much sums up The Last Days on Mars, a sci-fi-horror yarn stocked with a winning cast but hobbled by a lamebrained script and dull set pieces.

Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams, and Goran Kostic star as scientist-astronauts who are wrapping up a six-month expedition to find life on Mars. In only 19 hours, the crew will shuttle back to the mother ship.

But the months have taken a heavy toll, and cabin fever has set in.

The two senior science nerds, acid-tongued Kim Aldrich (Williams) and Marko Petrovic (Kostic), are at each other's throats. They've not managed to find a single Martian, and they're livid.

A driven, sarcastic, aggressive creature, Kim is a cross between Sigourney Weaver's Alien heroine Ripley and the alien monster itself. She declares the mission a total failure.

That's when the sneaky Slav sneaks out: He's found a whole host of Martians, and he wants to scoop 'em up before Kim finds out.

The Martians: We're not talking little green or gray men with black eyes. They don't have eyes to speak of. They're bacteria. But oh, what virulent, nasty bugs!

The Martians do what bacteria are wont to do. They infect the crew, starting with poor Marko. Alas (and alack), these aren't the kind of germs that give you the sniffles. They turn you into a savage, ravenous zombie.

Are the zombies under the control of a native intelligence? Do they have will, intention, intelligence? Are they defending their planet? The Last Days on Mars doesn't bother asking, opting instead to go into full-throttle chase 'n' murder mode.

But the action sequences aren't terribly active. Nor is the horror all that scary. One climactic battle scene is shot in the middle of a massive sandstorm: The viewer can't see any of the action.

Overall, the effect is more comic than horrifying.

"Stop! Please!" a crew member says to one of the murderous zombies. "You're sick! Take it easy! Just look at me!"

Smash, thwack, zip, rip, tear, gargle, splat.

Oh dear.

Last Days is the feature debut from Irish director Ruairi Robinson, who is acclaimed for his sci-fi shorts, including the Oscar-nominated Fifty Percent Grey.

Too clever by half, Robinson has fashioned the picture into a meta-derivative dissertation. It rips off, with a knowing wink and a nod, every film in the genre, including Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires, Ridley Scott's masterpiece Alien, and even the forgettable John Carpenter curio, Ghosts of Mars.

It's obvious Robinson has great talent, especially when it comes to visual storytelling. The Last Days on Mars has flair and class, all right.

But the movie is so busy being clever, it forgets to deliver the goods.

The Last Days on Mars ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Ruairi Robinson. With Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams, Goran Kostic. Distributed by Magnet Releasing.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence; profanity; ugly, creepy zombies)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse