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Saturday, 1 April 2017

I Can't Believe It's Not Alien! Life is a passable sci-fi creature feature with some serious originality issues

Alienated: Life owes Ridley Scott a big debt

This review contains minor spoilers...

Life
Director: David Espinoza
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds
Running time: 1hr 43mins

"Alien on the International Space Station" isn't the greatest elevator pitch in Hollywood history but that's nevertheless what you get here. In fact, Life's similarities to Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi masterpiece loom so large that I'm surprised its poster tag-line didn't read: "In space no one can hear you talk about just how much this resembles Alien... and The Thing a bit, too".

Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson are among members of a six-strong ISS crew charged with capturing an off-course space probe that has been collecting soil samples from Mars. The probe duly grabbed, British biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) discovers a single-cell organism in one of the samples. Initially dormant, Hugh uses his expertise to wake the creature and even interact with it. But Calvin - as the Martian is dubbed - turns nasty, starts to grow bigger and smarter, and escapes the lab to wreak havoc throughout the rest of the ship. The crew are ruthlessly picked off one by one for food, as Calvin continues to grow, and the survivors soon realise they may have to sacrifice themselves and the ISS itself to stop the Martian reaching Earth.

This kind of caper succeeds or fails on the scariness of its creature, but Calvin is a rather unimpressive beast - a sort of floating jellyfish thing that looks more like a refugee from a sushi restaurant than a true cinematic horror. I know Gyllenhaal and Reynolds don't come cheap these days but, on a budget only slightly under $60million, surely the monstrous Martian should be more impressive than it is? If you haven't got enough cash, you fall back on good, old-fashioned ingenuity - Scott made one of the most terrifying movies of all-time with a bloke in an alien suit (you could even see its zip in some shots!), a bit of dry ice and a couple of bravura set-pieces. He also made the most of his spaceship's ill-lit, claustrophobic corridors and used his creature sparingly to build suspense. We see altogether too much of Calvin and what we see is hardly the stuff of 3am cold sweats. Director Espinoza also nicks Scott's idea of having his creature violate its victims by climbing inside of them through their mouths but, again, it has nothing like the wince-inducing impact of Alien's face-huggers.

Mars attacks: The crew of the ISS fight for their lives

Aforementioned biologist Derry is the most interesting character in Life but is discarded too quickly. He's paraplegic, which immediately makes his experience of being in space totally different from everyone else's but, apart from a short scene in which he receives physio, that is never particularly explored. Because of the muscle atrophy that occurs in zero-gravity atmospheres, how did he come to be accepted for the mission? What happened to confine him to a wheelchair in the first place? I think they missed a trick in not making him the central character, not just because a disabled lead is incredibly rare (non-existent?) in this kind of movie but also because it would be a genuinely different way of tackling fairly tired material. As well as ravenous space monster Calvin, he would be presented with obstacles an able-bodied person would have little trouble negotiating, adding a potentially intriguing extra layer to the action. It is Derry's mistake that sets off the chain of events for Calvin's escape but he is denied the chance to put it right. He's a brilliant man but a flawed one and certainly a lot more engaging than Gyllenhaal's weirdly depressive doctor, Ryan Reynolds being Ryan Reynolds in the guise of an engineer, or Ferguson's resourceful but dull quarantine officer.

Towards the end the plot falls prey to one of my least favourite movie tropes - the one where something seemingly extraneous, perhaps introduced earlier in the film, turns out to include information or a phrase that inspires a cunning plan in our protagonist's head. You know the sort of thing: the characters have been talking about the ingredients of a breakfast cereal in one scene and then, later, our hero pauses and mumbles to himself, "Niacinamide? Of course!", before running off to make a great big bomb out of Sugar Puffs. This time it's the old children's book - Goodnight Moon - that screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have provide the required spark of genius, and if my eyes had rolled any further back into my head they'd have popped out of my ears.

Life does come together reasonably well in the final half-hour as Gyllenhaal and Ferguson make a last-ditch attempt to keep Calvin from reaching Earth. The movie's ending is also satisfyingly and surprisingly dark. Unfortunately, the improvement comes too late to fully excuse the preceding hour or so.

Rating: WW

Life is in UK cinemas now...

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

2 comments:

  1. And later this year we get to see Ridley Scott ripping off Alien! We are spoiled.

    I think my favourite thing about Life -- which doesn't say much -- is the oddly specific typecasting of Hiroyuki Sanada as a doomed Japanese spaceship captain, ten years after playing the same character in Sunshine. I hope he does it again in 2027.

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  2. That's a great spot - his character in Life is so sketchy it's almost non-existent. "He's Japanese and a new dad - will that do?"

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