Monday, May 1, 2017

'Life' review

I'm usually not this late on seeing a movie. I tend to see films within the first two weeks of their release, and if I'm not able to see it during opening weekend or quickly after, I'll just skip it altogether. That seemed to be what would ultimately happen with Daniel Espinosa's Life, a sci-fi horror/thriller that boasts an A-list cast and a premise that has been described as Alien meets Gravity. The film debuted in theaters on March 24 and due to a college trip that weekend, I missed it, as well as several others like Power Rangers and Song to Song. I was never compelled to check out the latter two, but I started to hear things about Life that piqued my interest in a strange way. Critics weren't exactly kind to what they described as a generic thriller, but I heard from multiple people that the film went beyond being bland- it was almost aggressively idiotic. When one of my closest friends said that I simply had to watch this movie, I immediately put it on my must-see list.

But keep in mind- I wasn't hate-watching. I had a genuine interest in seeing Life at one point, and despite the warnings from my friends, I was still hoping that this would be good. After all, it's a space thriller with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal- on paper, that sounds like a blast. But after seeing the film, it's safe to say that nobody was lying. Life is all kinds of bad, a pulpy sci-fi movie that quickly devolves into something that manages to be both profoundly silly and oddly self-serious. Here is a movie about quite possibly the dumbest group of scientists on the planet, individuals who seem to make the wrong choice at every turn. It features nearly no character development, no emotional investment, and not even a whole lot of context for what is even happening. It has a surprisingly effective start, but its failure to generate tension, intrigue, or suspense makes for a disappointing sci-fi adventure.

Life is the story of a group of astronauts on the International Space Station, none of whom are really all that interesting or engaging. There's Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), a roguish, charming scientist who is the heart and soul of the mission. There's David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), the quiet, reserved type who likes the emptiness and solitude of space. In addition, we meet Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), and Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), the slightly mad scientist who discovers a powerful alien life form. Oh yes, that's right, Life is a movie about aliens, and it doesn't take long for this space creature to start killing people. After an elementary school decides that Calvin is the best name to give the first documented extraterrestrial being in the history of civilization, the crew on the ISS begins performing more and more tests on the creature. Soon, Derry and the others realize that Calvin isn't a malevolent single cell organism, but a terrifying force of nature- all brain, all muscle. As the crew fights for their lives, they'll have to make a horrifying choice to prevent an indestructible creature from wiping out civilization as we know it.

Life is a weird movie, and I can't emphasize that enough. It seems to recognize its inherently ridiculous, pulpy nature at times, while also positioning itself as the grounded, serious alternative to popular sci-fi movies. Characters speak in elaborate tech lingo, spouting off scientific information that's meant to sound smart, but doesn't give us any real context on the story or characters. And for every clever filmmaking technique from director Daniel Espinosa, like the exceptionally cool opening tracking shot, there's something else that feels both overly familiar and ridiculous. What results is an endless series of dumb moments stuck in a tedious, "realistic" shell, one that never allows the film to take off in any meaningful way. What starts as promising quickly turns preposterous, and Life turns into the kind of schlocky nonsense that you would expect to find in the pre-summer months.

For me, it starts with the characters. Let's compare the crew of the ISS in Life to the men and women aboard the Nostromo in Alien, the clear inspiration for this film. In Alien, you know almost immediately who these characters are and what they're all about. Ripley is the no-nonsense tough woman, Brett and Parker are only in it for the money, Dallas is the cool and collected man in charge, and so on. In Life, we get none of that. Derry's paralysis is a confusing character motive that doesn't really play out, nor does Jordan's PTSD-driven misanthropy for the human race. Ryan Reynolds is basically playing Ryan Reynolds, Sanada and Dihovichnaya barely have characters at all, and Rebecca Ferguson's Miranda North is a confusing, cluttered mess. With such one-note, flat characters, it's pretty safe to say that you don't care about them when they start getting killed off. You don't need to have sympathy for every stock character in a sci-fi slasher movie, but there needs to be some kind of core to make it all worth it.

In addition, Espinosa seems to overlook suspense and terror in favor of grisly kills and elaborate effects, a mistake that pretty much dooms the movie. The design of the creature in Life is fairly laughable- it's a giant squid that kills people and moves really fast. Instead of playing with shadows and scares, Espinosa goes straight for the jugular, killing characters off in increasingly horrific ways. There's drowning, zero-G blood, and murder by squid, all with a poorly designed monster at the center of the action. But for all of the action and the running and the terror, there's rarely a hint of actual suspense or intrigue. There's no atmosphere, no underlying sense of dread and paranoia. Life would have been better off going the route of John Carpenter's The Thing, pitting our characters against each other, with nobody knowing exactly who to trust. Instead, it's the poor man's Alien- stock characters, mediocre kills, zero suspense.

In one of Life's action scenes, North and Jordan are being chased down a hallway by Calvin. As they dash through an escape point, Jordan shouts "No!" and slams a door in Calvin's face, hitting him and prompting a hilariously over-the-top sound effect.

I don't know why, but that feels like it sums up Life pretty well. It's a bad movie, plain and simple. It doesn't accomplish any of its goals, and while it might make you laugh a little bit in the process, I'm fairly certain that wasn't Espinosa's intention. Despite a terrific cast led by the reliable Reynolds and Gyllenhaal, Life is a sci-fi letdown that feels like an uninspired hodgepodge of much better films. In the hands of a better filmmaker and a better screenwriter, this could have gone differently. But in its current state, Life is an overblown misfire.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.5/10)

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

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