Skip to main content

Are you bringing the alien back to Earth?

Life
(2017)

(SPOILERS) There’s nothing terribly original about Life. Quite the reverse: you’re likely to suffer recurring déjà vu at its frequent employment of familiar tropes and plot devices. For much of the running time, however, that scarcely matters, so efficient is Daniel Espinosa’s direction and the conviction with which his cast runs through its paces.  As Alien/The Thing/Prometheus knock-offs go, this isn’t going to win any awards for depicting a newly-discovered lifeform running amok despite a highly trained and disciplined team rigorously observing protocols that would contain such a contingency, but then, it was never going to be that kind of movie.


Some may, as a result, find Life increasingly exasperating for the ISS crew’s sometimes blockheaded decisions, but I was mostly happy to go with the flow – hey, I’m the guy who likes Prometheus – and I found the first hour, in particular, to be a tense, claustrophobic ride, even as I was inwardly shaking my head at well-worn no-nos such as breaking quarantine (Alien) and never, ever, whatever you do, touching the newly-discovered sentient alien life form like it’s a cute ickle baba (Prometheus). Using flamethrowers in such an environment – definitely not an arena the size of the Nostromo – also seems entirely foolhardy. But, if you can get past the lip service paid to verisimilitude, many of the slowly-whittled crew’s subsequent actions appear, if not entirely reasonable, at least not risible.


Life (perhaps the least commanding title one could imagine for such a movie, which is neither starring Eddie Murphy nor about the guy who photographed James Dean) admittedly retreats to more pedestrian thrills once we’ve become familiar with the creature’s general proportions (think vicious starfish-cum-octopus) and modus operandi, as the crew float fraughtly through a succession of opening and closing hatches while attempting to avoid/lure it.


Espinosa and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland, Deadpool) have a number of tricks up their sleeves, such that, while you’re never in doubt on the general trajectory, it isn’t always evident what order the characters are going to peg it. I was fairly satisfied Ryan Reynolds was going to exit early on (the big/recognisable name in a Janet Leigh/John Hurt moment), purely because he seems to have a thing for that of late, but the biologist (Ariyon Bakare of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), earmarked by the trailers as an early casualty and whose obsessiveness brings this down on everyone (if there’s any lesson here, and it’s thin, it’s the old one of the dangers of unchecked scientific inquiry), survives for much longer than anyone probably expected.


So too, in these movies the creatures are usually vulnerable to fire, but it’s established early on that being flambéed is not going to kill the thing (Calvin) even if it doesn’t much like it. And, in contrast to the tendency to keep such finds top secret for bioweapons divisions, the discovery of life on Mars is announced across the globe immediately (as if!)


The cast don’t have much to work with, character-wise (you know the writers aren’t exactly stretching themselves when their choice of Jake Gyllenhaal’s backstory is PTSD resulting from the most recent US conflict, so Syria in this instance), but play their parts with sufficient conviction that the minimalism is more a help than a hindrance. Reynolds is surely improv-ing during his scenes, as he’s the only one whose dialogue has any spark, but it’s Rebecca Ferguson’s quarantine officer who brings the most to the scenario; Gyllenhaal does his intense-stare thing, but without anywhere productive to channel it (apart from Goodnight Moon), while Bakare brings the right air of blinkered tunnel vision to his early scenes. Olga Dihovichnaya and Hroyuki Sanada, as the captain and the system engineer respectively, make less of an impression, although I could have done without the unsubtle paralleling of the latter’s wife giving birth with the “baby” on the station.


Technically, Life is first rate, the simulated weightlessness never in question and never slowing down the picture. Sure, some of the CGI is obvious when it comes to exterior carnage, and the creature is never in any danger of becoming an iconic design, but generally there’s a pleasing sense of groundedness to the environment (albeit, they’re in a luxuriously roomy ISS, complete with sleeping pods and escape capsules). There’s also a disturbingly convincing rat absorption that far outweighs any minor upset over actual humans being slain.


As I say, once the picture has established the parameters of its threat and we’re faced with the usual configuration of evacuate/prevent Calvin reaching civilisation/self-sacrifice, I was quite prepared for Life to have done all it was going to, interest-wise, and that we were set for a standard ending in which Jake heroically sacrifices himself while Rebecca escapes to Earth. I foresaw few potential variations (such as: Fergusson having to dispose of the creature herself when it gets wise to Gyllenhaal’s plan, or when his pod veers off course, she he has to course correct with her own, so they both expire). As a consequence, I was genuinely impressed by the apocalyptically bleak ending, one that retrospectively ups the game of the entire picture.


It’s isn’t as if you don’t get these sorts of dread climaxes (they’re commonplace in zombie movies), but in this context, it’s the sort of resolution you’d be more likely to discover as a rejected alternate on the DVD release.  It’s especially notable for how much investment has clearly been put into it, not only for the dexterity of the fake out (we think Jake’s heading into space, and Rebecca to Earth, when its vice versa), but also for leaving both its doomed protagonists alive in the final shots. And that’s without Jon Ekstrand’s overwhelming ‘You’re all doomed!” score.


Espinosa’s direction is considerably more focussed and fluid than we’ve seen from his Hollywood excursions thus far, going some way towards making up for the mess that was Child 44 (although, with that cast and story potential, it does represent a significant demerit). He only occasionally appears to lose his bearings (the scene of the Soyuz docking seems to have lost some material, as Calvin attacking its crew appears only in long shots).


So yeah, Life isn’t going to win any awards for creative inspiration, or any awards for anything much, but as endings go, it’s armed with a doozy that should ensure a healthy post-theatrical life (it appears to have been rather ignored in cinemas). Maybe it’s just as well it won’t make enough money for an ill-advised sequel… Although, as ill-advised sequels go, that’s one movie I’d kind of like to see.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Suspicions of destiny. We all have them. A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come.

Damien: Omen II (1978) (SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II , where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.