1.5/4, 2010s, Daniel Espinosa, Horror, Review, Science Fiction

Life

Amazon.com : LIFE (2017) Original Movie Poster 27x40 - Dbl-Sided - Jake  Gyllenhaal - Ryan Reynolds - Rebecca Ferguson : Everything Else

A lot of people worked really hard on Life, the scifi horror film from Daniel Espinosa. Actors filmed extensively on wires on sets to emulate zero-gravity. Special effects were employed extensively to sell the ISS and the alien creature. And yet, the script was honestly just not there. Espinosa has said that he was trying to evoke Hitchcock’s Psycho to a certain degree, and the second I read that even more of the film’s failures became apparent to me. The final moments, though, were quite the nihilistic ending that I ended up kind of loving.

Six astronauts are on the International Space Station, awaiting the arrival of a probe from Mars carrying soil samples. The probe had been hit by meteorites on its way back, veering it off course, requiring a dangerous grab with the Station’s arm to pick it up. The opening eight minutes are a single shot, stitched together from dozens of smaller shots with special effects, and I found the entire experience rather headache inducing. Veering back and forth from one character to another without any time to get to know any of them or even what they were doing or where, the shot, which feels like it was designed to give the audience a sense of the geography of the Station, ends up surprisingly confusing. There’s simply too much going on as it moves too fast. We do see all of the characters and all of the station, but it doesn’t settle long enough to make any kind of impression. The sequence ends with the arm catching the probe, of course. I’ll say that I think this whole sequence was a mistake. It’s too high stakes too early and too frantic all at once. It’s essentially starting the film with an action sequence before we get to know anyone, and the action takes so much time that we don’t get to know any of the characters doing any of the actions. I think a much more subdued, professional, and traditionally shot sequence of catching a probe that feels normal and routine would have allowed for more character to come out.

The soil sample arrives, testing begins, and they discover a single celled organism that they immediately try to bring to life. This represents another failing with the film, I think. We end up finding out, I think, that the CDC knew that the soil sample contained an organism to begin with, so they sent up Rebecca Ferguson’s Miranda North right before its arrival in order to help monitor the study conducted by Ariyon Bakare’s Huge Derry, the ISS’s exobiologist. This is all a secret from half of the crew for some reason, and from the audience. It really just ends up being a late reveal that means nothing to anyone because it makes pretty much no sense.

The relation to Psycho is about how Ryan Reynolds’ Rory Adams, the station’s engineer, is meant to be similar to Janet Leigh’s character in Hitchcock’s film. The problem with that idea as applied in Life is that Reynolds is one of six people vying for attention, and the movie has little to no concern for actually painting them individually. They pretty much have to entirely rely on the different looks, accents (the crew is international, of course), and the personalities of the actors themselves to differentiate between them. We do get a couple of scenes with Hiroyuki Sanada’s Sho Murakami, the station’s systems engineer, as he watches his daughter being born on a tablet as well as Jake Gyllenhaal’s David Jordan, the station’s medical officer, as he reflects on how much more he likes it in space than on Earth. Rory doesn’t get a scene like that, so his death ends up gruesome but flat. We don’t know him. We don’t care about him beyond the idea that he’s Ryan Reynolds.

So, the single-celled organism gets revived and starts growing. This is where the movie is at its most interesting. It feels like a group of professionals doing professional things with an unusual bent. The creature, which gets named Calvin by children back on earth, is described as a hive of independent cells that all work together, all function as brain, muscle, and eye, and grows in interesting ways. The special effects shots of Calvin reaching out to touch Derry’s finger are the single best part of the movie. But, Calvin must be an evil monster that kills everyone, and from the moment it ends up killing Rory, the movie becomes rote. It’s a chase, kill, escape scenario until the end as Calvin takes out the crew one by one while most senses of reality get thrown out the window in favor of genre thrills. This would be okay if the character work were in place to actually support any kind of emotional investment in the deaths, but that’s definitely not there. It also feels kind of weird because the gruesome deaths have a level of artificiality about them all because blood can’t just fall normally without gravity, so it’s all CGI, giving it a certain cartoon flavor that it can’t quite escape.

Now, the ending, which I’m just gonna go ahead and spoil, is something I kind of love. A weird thing to happen after I’ve been bored pretty consistently for an hour and a half, for sure. The crew gets down to two, Ferguson and Gyllenhaal, and they decide on a plan where each will take one of the two escape pods. Gyllenhaal will attract Calvin to his pod, allowing Ferguson to get to hers safely. Gyllenhaal will direct his pod into deep space while Ferguson will allow the computer to land her safely on Earth. Chaos erupts, and it ends up that Gyllenhaal’s pod landed on Earth with Calvin while Ferguson’s was sent careening off into space uncontrollably. The way the reveal is handled is somewhat predictable, but it so completely embraces the nihilism of the moment that I have to admire it.

It’s a small moment compared to the rest of the film, though. I was genuinely disengaged from the affair early and never got into the action. It’s too fake looking while dealing with characters I never got to know or care about. But still, that ending…

Rating: 1.5/4

2 thoughts on “Life”

  1. I missed the existence of this film until now.
    I think I’ll go on missing it.

    Starting a movie, or a story, with action is risky. It works with stories where we already know the characters, like James Bond, Conan, or Mike Hammer. We don’t need to get to know the character, we know who the hero is and anyone trying to mess with him is a bad guy. That basic condition satisfied, we can shut our brain off and enjoy the action.
    It also can work to subvert expectations (sigh…yes, I know). A little subversion goes a long way, though. For example, the action sequence at the beginning of The Matrix really works because, the very first time, you don’t know who Trinity is. She could be a bad guy, after all, she’s killing cops. Then the spectacle of her fighting, and running and escaping just takes you to a new level. And only afterwards do we have established who she is and what context that opening scene has.
    Action establishes physical stakes, if it doesn’t, it’s just meaningless noise. But the physical stakes, the danger of someone being harmed, only really matters if we care who gets harmed. And to care, you have to know the characters and care about them. So we’re back to NOT starting your movie off, or your story off, with action….unless you’re really good at what you’re doing.

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    1. All of that is true of this movie, and as the scene was ending, feeling kind of dizzy at the whole experience, I started to imagine a quieter opening sequence instead. Professionals being professional doing something that sounds routine based on the dialogue but feels tense based on the editing and performances. Quietly, we watch the effort to trap the probe, hearing that everything should be going fine but knowing based on everything else that any little thing could go wrong. This would require a tighter focus on the characters, allowing us the time to see them at their jobs, doing what they are there to do in the kind of high stakes everyday that is their lives. This could allow for small moments of humanity here and there as well.

      Also, I kept thinking of Alien and the slow, steady buildup to the eventual mayhem of the second half of the film. That film starts really quietly with the ship waking up, giving us time to get to know the crew. This decides to be showy instead, an example of a director really getting in the way of the movie to try and show off.

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