Tuesday, March 28, 2017

In Theaters: LIFE (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya. (R, 104 mins)

There's really no way to approach LIFE without labeling it an ALIEN knockoff. To its credit, it doesn't try to disguise that, instead opting to bring enough modern technology to the table that it ends being ALIEN in a post-GRAVITY/THE MARTIAN genre. Visually, LIFE is extraordinarily convincing and with a budget of $60 million--low by today's standards--it manages to look better than a lot of movies that somehow cost $150 million or more and still look like shit. LIFE earns some points for going the extra mile to stick to hard science in its depiction of life on a space station by having its characters spend the entire film floating around in zero gravity. That effort isn't quite tantamount to putting lipstick on a pig, but in the end, LIFE can't really clear the major hurdle of its overwhelming sense of familiarity. Sure, it's an ambitious visual effects triumph, but at the end of the day, it's still just another ALIEN ripoff, and one that compromises its admirably downbeat twist ending by pointlessly segueing to "Spirit in the Sky" played over the closing credits. While it's nice that its inclusion here means Norman Greenbaum keeps the power on for another six months, it has no business being used in this movie, much less sending the audience out humming a catchy classic rock tune after such a bleak wrap-up. Were "Born to Be Wild," "Brown-Eyed Girl," and "Paranoid" also considered? Now, 1990's MIAMI BLUES? Sure, perfect use of "Spirit in the Sky." But by now, in 2017? No. No more. Please, Hollywood, give us a fucking break already with "Spirit in the Sky."

On the International Space Station just outside Earth's atmosphere, the six-person crew intercepts a damaged space probe returning from an eight-month trip to Mars, where it collected soil samples to be studied by British biologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakire). A tiny organism is discovered in the sample and offers the first irrefutable proof of life beyond Earth. Mission commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) alerts NASA to the discovery, and schoolchildren in NYC bestow the name "Calvin" on "the Martian." It's a basic life form kept in quarantine, but begins growing at an alarming rate before going into a temporary hibernation. Derry stirs Calvin with a jolt of electricity, with the clear, translucent organism now demonstrating an increased aggression, wrapping tiny tentacles around Derry's right hand and crushing it even through protective gloves. Golovkina and British quarantine officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) put the safety of the crew ahead of rescuing Derry, but maintenance engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) breaches the sealed entrance to the lab to get Derry out and ends up being killed by Calvin, now resembling a small starfish/octopus hybrid, who squirms down Rory's throat and devours him from the inside out. Calvin escapes through a vent and can turn up anywhere, with North, Japanese systems engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada, in a role similar to his turn in Danny Boyle's SUNSHINE a decade ago), and American chief medical officer Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a traumatized war vet who's logged more time on the ISS than anyone and is in no hurry to return home, attempting to contain it and prevent it from making its way to Earth.

Director Daniel Espinosa (SAFE HOUSE, CHILD 44) and the screenwriting team of Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick (ZOMBIELAND, DEADPOOL) follow the ALIEN template at least until the climactic twist with the characters being offed mostly by reverse order of billing, with the exception of guest star Reynolds biting it about 35 minutes in. None of the actors are required to stretch all that much, with Gyllenhaal looking glum and dour, Ferguson playing by-the-book and authoritative, and Reynolds cast radically against type as "Ryan Reynolds," with Rory a wisecracking snark machine whose being made an inside-out meal of by Calvin spares us the risk of LIFE turning into DEADPOOL IN SPACE. With limited screen time, Bakare manages to create a well-rounded character in Derry, a paraplegic whose disability isn't a factor in the weightlessness of space. Espinosa manages a few genuinely suspenseful moments and LIFE captures the claustrophobic feel of being in such cramped quarters, but so do a few dozen other movies of this sort. Too many of the plot developments hinge on characters doing stupid things (had Rory not breached the lab, the movie would've ended after 30 minutes). Despite the pre-release online chatter that LIFE was a secret prequel to Marvel's VENOM due in 2018 (it's not), it really just seems to have been given the green light because someone said "Hey, wouldn't it be cool to remake ALIEN with the kind of state-of-the-art CGI they used in GRAVITY?" LIFE isn't bad, and while it's perfectly watchable, looks superb, and has a handful of reasonably solid set pieces, it doesn't do much to justify its existence or distance itself from the pack. The ending works on a gut-punch level and the twist hits you quickly enough that you don't have a chance to question it until the credits start rolling, by which point you're humming "Spirit in the Sky" and already forgetting about what you just watched.

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