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Monday
Mar272017

When "Life" Goes Wrong...

by Nathaniel R

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a group of scientists are tasked with bringing samples of life back from outer space. Soon they are trapped in a nightmarish monster movie, as the alien life force picks them off one by one.

Life, the latest monster movie set in space, does a lot of things right despite its familiarity. Let's give credit where it's due. It hired capable involving actors in all the underwritten roles including Jake Gyllenhaal who we'll follow anywhere, even into deep space for a Alien ripoff. It's very handsomely lensed by prestigious cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. The direction by Daniel Espinosa (Child 44, Safe House) makes repeated smart use of the zero gravity setting, with well staged setpieces and even some unexpectedly beautiful compositions; the earliest casualty among the crew prompts the movie's eeriest morbidly pretty image. Apart from one confusing action sequence near the climax, the filmmakers seem to have a complete handle on the material.

So why then, is it unsatisfying? 

When does Life go wrong? 

Sadly I'd wager it all went wrong in pre-production when no one pulled the plug or demanded that the movie come up with its own distinct identity, or flesh out the character relations. But as for something with greater specificity I'd say that things go very wrong as soon as "Calvin," the monster of this monster movie grows a thing we can definitely recognize as a face. It opens up too to reveal itself as even scarier than expect like the Alien franchises grotesque mini mouths within mouths. It ruins the spell and the specificity. Suddenly he feels like just any alien monster and not like himself.

You see he starts out having his own identity, however amorphous. He is first a single cel and then grows into a rubbery starfish like blob, that moves with charming curiousity within its glass prison. In one interesting moment before all hell breaks looks (as you know it will in this type of picture) the scientist studying him marvels at his multi-functional cels saying that he's "all muscles, all eyes". The line is said in wonderment but still feels like a threat to any moviegoer who has seen any monster movie before.

Even as he grows Calvin's tentacled blob-like qualities, give him a non HR Giger/Alien quality -- there's no hard shell or face (at first) or excretions -- which is tremendously helpful in setting the movie at least slightly apart. One of the crew -- the characters aren't distinct enough to remember who said what to whom --  says he's just an animal like any of them, needing to survive with water and oxygen and food, so its irrational to hate him. 

I thought back to this speech afterwards when the movie's most curiously moving image kept coming back to me. In one late action sequence, Gyllenhaal distracts Calvin with a series of lighted heated oxygen sticks as the ship is losing its temperature control and atmosphere making it hard for all of them to breathe. Calvin repeatedly curls himself up into a ball around each one of them until he's sucked it dry. His will to survive propels the movie. From another vantage point, a more original one, he's the protagonist fighting to survive while his crafty food tries to kill him!

Grade: C+
Oscar Chances: Nope. It's handsomely mounted but not satisfying enough to stick. Basically it's a very good looking B movie.

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Reader Comments (8)

So does the B/Off disaster of this film spell trouble for Ridley & co.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

Ryan Reynolds makes me feel bad because he annoys me so much and it goes against my principles of not hating someone I don't know.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTony T

I sure wish Jake could break through big time . I really like him . But his choices in movies have been somewhat weak.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterK

K - I agree about Jake. He really has a lot of talent but seems to gravitate towards good roles in whatever movies. He needs to find himself a good director collaborator. Actresses are so much better at establishing durable relationships with great directors. He needs to bring Denis Villeneuve back into his life.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTony T

My feeling is that Jake will never be a movie star. They have been trying for years, but he does not connect with movie audiences on the star level. He is somewhat respected as an actor, but the Oscar voters also don't seem very interested in him.

Ryan finally connected with Deadpool, his smarmy face covered by a mask. Enough said.

Thanks for the heads up that I don't need to see this film!

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMinerva

Jake's in it for the long haul,Ryan Reynolds won't be.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

Jake has dome some great work in some recent movies he gave the best performance in "Prisoners" and was terrific in "End of Watch" and "Nightcrawler". The problem I had with "Life" is that everything from it's title to it's monster seemed generic.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

So basically this sounds like one of those late 90s-early 00s sci-fi:s that went nowhere. Starting with Sharon Stone's Sphere and ending with i dont know where?

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesper

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