by: Lewis H. Montaug
Across the Margin gives praise where due, to an exceptional film that somehow flew under the radar…..
Los Ultimos Dias (“The Last Days”) may in fact be the best film released in 2013 that you haven’t yet seen ((Unless you happen to be a Netflix scavenger, like me.)). Films depicting our dystopian future are a dime a dozen these days, a true sign of the precarious times we live in. But a superfluous amount of films does not necessarily imply quality. For every apocalyptic-themed classic released (Snowpiercer, Edge of Tomorrow), we are inundated by a deluge of films with incoherent narratives and lackluster appeal. More recently we have been besieged by a barrage of energetic young adult stories masquerading as films capable of tackling the serious nature of the dystopian landscape (The Giver, The Maze Runner, Divergent). It’s undeniable that when films of this nature, ones that strive to capture the true story of humanity’s descent into chaos, are done right, it can leave a lasting impression. There is something so special about our struggle against the encroaching dark. About our willingness, despite insurmountable odds, to fight to hang onto humanness in the face of imminent doom. Some of the finest sci-fi films ever made placed us in the not too distant future, with city’s smoldering in ruin, resources scarce and contended over, and those who remain alive do so with only one purpose, to survive.
More often than not a great sci-fi film portraying the end of days fails to transcend the genre it inhabits. Maybe the film is a success at the box office because it entices the masses with state of the art CGI rendering the fall of civilization in visually stunning detail. Or maybe the film is capitalizing on the goodwill and buzz garnered by a series of successful novels, and its loyal fans flock to it blindly without question. But whatever the reason, it is certainly rare that a film of this nature is considered one of the better movies of the year. One that has the ability to affect you on a deeper level, a degree that the typical popcorn films fail to do. This is, Los Ultimos Dias. The one that got away.
Los Ultimos Dias is a Spanish sci-fi thriller directed by David and Alex Pastor ((Their first film, Carriers, was a post-apocalyptic horror film centered around a viral pandemic)). It stars Quim Gutierrez (Marc) and Jose Coronado (Enrique) as unlikely allies in an inconceivable quest. A curious epidemic has consumed the planet, leaving mankind with an illogical fear of open spaces. It’s a fear so profound, and so tangible, that to venture beyond the safety of the indoors causes instant death. Rather quickly, the entire population of the world finds itself trapped within buildings and houses, subway stations and tunnels deep underground. As Barcelona succumbs to the horrors of this mysterious scourge, Marc and Enrique set out across the city’s subterranean landscape to determine what has become of the ones they love.
The premise for Los Ultimos Dias is far from groundbreaking. At its most basic, it’s an old car with a fresh coat of paint. But wherein the freshness of the apocalyptic genre is long-past expired, it’s the execution of the film that is spellbinding and draws you in. At the core of Los Ultimos Dias are its main characters, Marc and Enrique, an unlikely duo that, as the film progresses, you begin to actually care about. The film’s foundation is laid upon these two disparate individuals attempting the seemingly impossible in order to reach those who mean the most to them. Both men’s plights manifest themselves as equally heartfelt, and a mutual respect for their motivations erases whatever shortcomings they had as individuals before “The Panic” struck. Marc, a young computer programmer with a girlfriend, and Enrique, a lonely company man with a sick father as his only family, were two men at odds before “The Panic” engulfed the world. And with the arrival of the potential end of humankind, they must reluctantly learn to lean on each other and foster trust in order to survive. The blossoming friendship between Marc and Enrique as they drop their walls and let each other in is positively convincing, establishing Los Ultimos Dias as a survival-thriller effused with bountiful affection and sentiment.
David and Alex Pastor’s direction is exemplary. Not only did the Pastor’s define the parameters of the world they built through clever cinematography, clearly demonstrating the horrors of the mysterious disease ((It’s agoraphobia-like in its nature and characterized by anxiety in situations where the sufferer perceives certain environments as dangerous or uncomfortable.)), but they also showed us the potential for success for films of this nature. By stripping-down the Hollywood excesses of explosions and computer-generated eye-candy, they allowed the often underwhelming human element to rise to the surface. And by not indulging in superfluous effects, by giving us just enough to set the movies feel, the focus of the film becomes much more clear. The relationship between two paradoxical beings and their shared skirmish with the malfunctioning world about them was allowed to stand front and center, rattling the viewer with its rawness and plucking at heartstrings with its gentle finesse. The films storytelling is where it excels. And its ability to draw the viewer into the world that it builds its triumph. A world that feels, oddly, like it could happen tomorrow.
Unfortunately, the reviews for Los Ultimos Dias weren’t glowing. Variety described it as “watchable but forgettable,” ((Yet also noting that “the film boasts remarkable visuals: Production designer Baltasar Gallart and set decorator Nuria Muni successfully find a sharp-edged beauty in this abandoned, digitally ravaged but very recognizable Barcelona”)) while Rotten Tomatoes found Los Ultimos Dias to have a paltry 43% approval rating. Receptions such as this upon release, as well as American’s general aversion to subtitles, undoubtedly contributed to the glossing-over of this film stateside. Yet this negative criticism appears misguided, for Los Ultimos Dias, upon each successive viewing, remains for me a persistently enthralling, well-crafted, and touching film featuring complex characters with convincing motivations for their actions. A worthy addition to the dystopian classics of yore.