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.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .