Wednesday, March 29, 2017

On the Big Screen :: Maybe We Were Better Off Left Alone: Daniel Espinosa's Life (2017)

While holding a geosynchronous orbit over the planet Earth sometime in the near future, six multinational astronauts man the International Space Station, which has just managed to catch a damaged probe returning from Mars that’s filled with valuable soil samples as the film begins in the middle of everything. Soon enough, after poking in the pilfered dirt, lead xenobiologist, Hugh Derry (Bakare), whose handicapped legs are negated by zero gravity, unearths an inert Martian amoeba that he is able to reanimate, which inevitably turns out to be a huge mistake.

Now, there have been several protocols established for this kind of contingency and breach, written-up and enforced by the quarantine officer, Miranda North (Ferguson), as the alien life-form, dubbed 'Calvin', quickly escalates from “awe” to “argh” but these quickly break down as the monster escapes from the isolation lab and starts attacking the rest of the crew, rounded out by mission leader Golovkina (Dihovichnaya), chief engineer Murakami (Sanada), medical officer Jordan (Gyllenhaal), and Adams (Reynolds), the gung-ho mechanical engineer. And when Calvin proves nigh indestructible, these six soon find themselves trapped between an alien that wants to consume them and the cold reality of the ultimate sacrifice needed to keep this invasive species from reaching the planet Earth...

Now, before we get into the guts of the film, I need to address the venue for a second. Our local multiplex holds a notorious reputation for being an awful place to watch a movie but it has improved greatly over the past couple of years in terms of general competency and quality of your theatrical experience, meaning more often than not the floor is clean, the film is in focus, is matted right, the lights are shut off when the movie starts, and someone bothers to shut the doors so you don’t have to listen to the movie playing across the hall, too. However, when I attended an early Monday matinee this week and the minutes ticked past the designated starting time, with the lights still ablaze and the screen still dark, being the only soul there, I made a quick check to see if I was in the right theater first (-- I was), and then headed to the snack bar to ask if anyone would be interested in starting the movie in theater seven.

By the time I got back the lights were off and the preamble before the endless stream of trailers started. (Is this a normal AMC thing to show nearly twenty minutes of previews and commercials before the film even starts? Or is it just our local?) And then, as I resettled into my seat, a second viewer came in. And while he had dozens of seats to choose from, this guy choose the one directly behind me, which allowed me to hear him noisily dig around in his popcorn sack and chew every morsel and slurp his soda from the opening credits to the very end of the movie. Good times. So, to sum up, I have no idea if these annoying circumstances had any influence on my less than favorable reaction to the film in question but they surely didn’t help. Then again, this movie had plenty of problems all on its own.

See, as Life (2017) played out it's hard to shake the feeling we have seen all of this before. It’s like Gravity (2013) meets Alien (1979) by way of a multitude of knock-offs and Swhy-Fwhy originals. Also, toss in all the glacial urgency of The Andromeda Strain (1971). Oh, and also Grabbers (2012) came to mind due to the eventual cephalopodic, final mutation of the rampaging creature.

Still, this hodge-podge of a film is entertaining enough, even though it cannot quite decide if Calvin, which grows the more it consumes, and it has since gotten pretty big as six is whittled down to two, is just some kind of wild animal motivated by pure survival instinct or something a little more clever and sentient (-- and judging by its industrious nature to engineer several escapes, I’m thinking the latter).  And that isn’t the only coherency problem the movie has, as several key scenes didn’t quite jive. (Slight spoilers from here on out.) I understand that it could latch onto Derry’s leg and him not realizing it -- but him not seeing it do this is another matter. And so, we have no idea when it got there as they seal off a section of the ship to try and asphyxiate the monster, not realizing it’s already inside the defensive safety perimeter.

Things are not helped by all the characters involved being one note ciphers, either, which are pretty much defined by their job description. You don’t want to see these people killed, but I’m damned if I could tell you why? They try to flesh them out some -- Murakami has just become a father, Jordan appears to have been out in space a little too long, but there just isn’t any time to get to know these people. Some familiar faces in the cast add some weight, but Rebecca Ferguson is wasted and it appears at first glance Ryan Reynolds was essentially some Janet Leigh level stunt-casting, until further research shows he was supposed to play Jordan but scheduling conflicts had him taking the smaller role and the first to fall victim -- rather messily -- to the creature, who may or may not be the root cause of the extinction of life on Mars or the sole survivor, explaining why it is so hard to kill.

Originally slated to be released on Memorial Day, Columbia studios, being scared off by the latest Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and Alien: Covenant (2017), moved the release date of Life back to mid-March. And after watching it, I can kinda understand the studio’s waffling and lack of faith. And then there’s that ending. *sheesh* Speaking frankly, I hated the poorly executed and completely telegraphed “shock” twist ending as director Daniel Espinosa and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick play two-card monte with a pair of escape pods and that, I think -- no, I know, soured the overall experience of Life for me the most, tempering and otherwise, 'meh, it wasn’t THAT terrible' impression.

What I can say for sure is the first half of Life is much better, engrossing and suspenseful than the last half -- unless scrambling around and sealing doors and bulkheads is your idea of a stellar action set-piece and a good time at the movies. I did not hate this film and it was by no means a bad movie. Well acted, and competently executed on a technical level -- except for the ending, Life just rang a little too tired and familiar for me. (And did I mention I HATED the ending?) Probably worth a look at a cheap matinee, but beyond that I’d wait for a rental. As always, your survival rate may vary.

Life (2017) Columbia Pictures :: Skydance Media :: Sony Pictures Entertainment / EP: Vicki Dee Rock, Don Granger / P: Julie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg / D: Daniel Espinosa / W: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick / C: Seamus McGarvey / E: Mary Jo Markey, Frances Parker / M: Jon Ekstrand / S: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Ariyon Bakare, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya

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