Monday 10 April 2017

Life (2017) - Movie Review

Just as time loop narratives are currently reaching the point of potential oversaturation, it seems that the same can be said for films involving isolation in space. The Martian, Approaching The Unknown, Star Trek Beyond to a certain extent, even Passengers from earlier this year; we’re certainly not want for stories about how the vastness of space can make the average human feel infinitesimally small. However, as I’ve been making a habit of saying over the last few reviews, preconceptions like “Ugh, another space movie? This is gonna suck.” are made to be broken. Of course, bear in mind that another preconception I had with this film is “With these people attached to it, please don’t suck” so you can see the weird place I’m in before I even watch the bloody thing. So, is this going to fall into the cracks of the sub-genre or is it going to make itself stand out (hopefully, for the right reasons)?

The plot: Aboard the International Space Station, doctors David (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), engineer Roy (Ryan Reynolds), pilot Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada), biologist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) and commander Katerina (Olga Dihovichnaya) have found what may be proof of extra-terrestrial life. However, as the lifeform starts to grow and evolve, it may pose a risk to not only everyone on the ISS but everyone on Earth as well.

The main reason why I was honestly pretty excited to check this out is because of the cast listing. After the still-brewing disappointment caused by Nocturnal Animals and initial worries that Reynolds would just be coasting in Deadpool mode for the rest of his career, I am quite pleased to report that everyone here pulls their weight. Gyllenhaal is back in prime form, getting plenty of chances to roar his way through the scenery, and Reynolds (while admittedly not in the film as much as I’d like) delivers as the snarky pessimist. Ferguson is given more and more to work with as the film continues, and she does brilliantly with the switch-ups, Dihovichnaya probably sells the sheer terror of the situation better than anyone else here and Sanada helps bring the family side of the equation very well. Honestly, out of all of them, it’s Bakare that ends up making the biggest impact. Not only because he physically shows a lot of what space exploration can offer, the enthusiastic energy and curiosity he brings to the role fits in perfectly with what the film is going for thematically.

The secondary reason why I was looking forward to this is the writing team attached to it: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the same team behind not only Zombieland but also last year’s smash hit Deadpool. While this film may seem like a very heavy departure from their more comedic and parodic work, this actually feels like a story that they would create. Much like Zombieland and Deadpool, this has a very definite feeling that these writers have sat through a lot of genre material to construct their narrative.
Even given the film’s similarities to certain classics like Alien and even John Carpenter’s The Thing, I still refrain from calling this derivative. Mainly because this has a similar approach to its premise that Alex Garland did with Ex Machina: Make the characters intelligent and curious, same as the audience. As such, we have rather fleshed-out characters that help keep the audience’s attention and their intricate safeguarding aboard ISS shows that these are people whom have been chosen for this mission for a reason and they have taken every precaution possible.

Then there’s the alien threat itself, named Calvin in-film because anything Western should distract from how tentacle-hentai the creature looks. I kid, of course; Calvin is legitimately quite terrifying through how it is presented along with its design. For lack of a better term, it has a proper organic look to it as we see it grow and evolve over the course of the film, not to mention showing the kind of intellect needed to go against our human protagonists. The scenes where it attacks the crew, utilizing probably the only instance of CGI blood that I haven’t immediately disliked, are very chilling and the relative simplicity in how it operates just makes that hit even harder. The direction under Daniel Espinosa keeps the tension incredibly high throughout the film, readily making use of the low gravity and abnormal situation to really dig deep under the skin in quite a few scenes.

When these two halves come together, however, is when the film really starts to show its merit. Through the majority of space exploration yarns we’ve seen on our screens over the last few years, it has always come with a depiction of what journeying into the void could mean for man, both individually and as a species. There’s plenty of that to be found here too with the crew’s motivations, from discovery and curiosity to seeing what can be done in space as opposed to Earth to getting away from the grislier aspects of what happens on Earth. Running as an undercurrent through most of these types of stories is ultimately one of optimism: Not only did humanity survive to the point where space travel/exploration is even possible, but humanity itself, more times than not, is prepared for what lie in waiting beyond our atmosphere.
Throughout the film, we get a sense that the crew of the ISS have put in a lot of safeguards and firewalls to ensure absolute safety when dealing with the prospect of alien life. Again, that Reese/Wernick genre-savviness peaks through. However, where this film diverges from the usual fare is that it actually has quite a downbeat tone to it overall. As the tension rises while Calvin slinks its way past their defences, the film brings up a point that rarely if ever gets addressed anymore when it comes to science-fiction; or at least, not to this extent: Maybe, despite how much we may try, space may be too much for us.

All in all, I am very impressed with this film. The acting is solid across the board, the effects work is top-notch and manages to bring the gruesome actions of Calvin into an uncomfortable sense of reality and the writing definitely scratches that genre itch while filling in its own niche in today’s sci-fi isolation market.

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