‘Life’ may have come too late (movie review)

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When you think of the movie Life within the grand scheme of things, it’s a real oddity—or space oddity as it were. It’s a movie that really doesn’t belong in 2017. Saying it’s been done before is a truism at this point. The casting is also anachronistic. Jake Gyllenhaal and, to a lesser extent Ryan Reynolds, have graduated from this kind of fare. True, A-listers often take breaks from their more serious projects to headline an action flick, but neither actor here really takes the lead or even registers much at all. It’s as if they were just starting their careers. Based on these factors, we’ll say you’re in for a horror flick from 2002.

As a stand-alone film, though, Life has its moments despite the movie’s narrative. It unfolds almost exactly like dozens of similar films that have come out since the late ‘70s. It’s the near- future and a six-member crew aboard the International Space Station recovers a damaged probe that’s returned from Mars with a soil sample. Being the inquisitive geniuses that they are, specifically the British biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), they study the sample and discover a single-celled organism, proof of extraterrestrial life. The crew and the people of Earth rejoice. The audience knows better.

After some scientific tinkering, the specimen grows into a multi-celled organism. And after further ill-advised poking and prodding the translucent squid-like creature, now called ‘Calvin’ based on the suggestion from school children back on Earth, becomes aggressive, lashes out at Derry and, of course, escapes its confinement to wreak havoc upon the ship and its crew.

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There’s nothing new here, but the presentation does feel fresh at times. We’re treated to one of those delightful extended tracking shots at the start of the film as the camera flies through the zero gravity ship, going from one room to another, giving us a glimpse of the ship’s geography while introducing us to the various members of the crew. It’s not as arresting or innovative as, say, Gravity, but it’s still a solid piece of filmmaking. The ship itself and its surroundings also look impressive and director Daniel Espinosa does a good job at convincing the audience of the confined quarters these characters inhabit. There’s truly nowhere to run…or float.

The caliber of acting is also superior to most films in this vein. Gyllenhaal himself is arguably one of the best actors working today and Reynolds is no amateur. Even the unknowns are solid. When people talk in this movie, in doesn’t have that overly animated quality seen in many horror films; they sound even and natural. Though there’s plenty of room for more character development here. Each crew member gets one or two personality traits or pieces of information about their lives, just enough that we at least care a little bit when they meet their ultimate demise. It is a horror movie after all, though how many die, I will not say. However, it’s a damn shame that the marketing team apparently hasn’t heard the phrase ‘spoiler alert’. A certain scene would’ve been significantly more effective if they had.

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What’s surprising, though, is how effective this admittedly flawed film can be as a horror story. We don’t just get the blood and gore—though there’s plenty of that—but we feel a genuine sense of dread when the creature has its way with victims. The staging of some of these scenes mixed with Jon Ekstrand’s tragic score and the shocked reactions from the actors is truly disturbing. This film has its share of jump scares, but there’s also a respectable focus on mood which is so important.

What takes away from this experience, unfortunately, is the creature itself. To be fair, the being looks pretty good in some parts. More often, though, poor special effects break the illusion and we become unconvinced that an actual living thing is on screen with the actors. As strong as the tension, music and acting are at times, the poor effect takes you right out of the reality of the situation. It becomes too obvious that these human beings are being attacked by lines of code.

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Most of what’s good about this film occur in the first half with the second being a relative blur. The built-up horror and tension more or less dissipate in place of bland action. Much of the remaining run time focuses on the crew members floating from one module to another through countless corridors; when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. There is a moderately effective twist near the end, but in different hands, it could’ve been executed much more gracefully.

Final Reaction

Life is a film that lives or dies by expectation. If you think you’re going to see a tour de force performance from Gyllenhaal or an incredibly insightful piece of science fiction or an overly unique take on the horror genre, you’d best curb your enthusiasm. Don’t expect much and you might be surprised. I always stress the importance of originality. If this movie was, indeed, released in 2002, it would be great. It was released in 1979 under the name Alien by a Mr. Ridley somebody. Back then it was a masterpiece.

Rating: 3/5 atoms

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