*stammering in shock* I… uh, how? In the name of all things original and competent, HOW IS THIS MOVIE EVEN A THING?! Alright, I need to slow down for a second; here’s the context. I watched Power Rangers and I’ve already started the review on it. For those aching for that review, the movie is essentially 50% crap, 50% cool stuff. Then I watched Life in search of mindless enjoyment and nothing else. Surely I can at least be entertained by modern Hollywood right? Upon leaving the theater, I had more passionate anger than I did with the Ghostbusters remake. Before we get into the criticism, I’m warning you, there will be a lot of rage in this review, and I’m NOT going to apologize for it. The incompetence of this movie is inexcusable! Ok, here we go.
Life is directed by Daniel Espinosa and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Stars-Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ryan Reynolds, Olga Dihovichnaya, and Ariyon Bakare. Premise-After discovering an intelligent, sentient organism in Mars samples, a crew of astronauts/scientists conduct various tests to see if it responds. When it turns out to be a hostile, rapidly evolving creature, it becomes a game of cat-and-mouse on the spaceship as the crew fights for their lives.
The opening scene shows promise; displaying some decent (but average by the standards set by Gravity, Interstellar, and Rogue One) F/X. One Brian De Palma-style tracking shot later and our sci-fi clichéachers (i.e. clichéd characters) have been introduced. The aloof one (Gyllenhaal), the protocol controlling leader (Ferguson), the scientist who treats the alien like his child (Bakare), the joke-maker who’ll die first (Reynolds), the Asian who speaks in technobabble (Sanada), and the other one you completely forgot about (Dihovichnaya). Your first thought is probably, “Well, the ensemble cast is probably great.” No. What he have is a wasted ensemble cast. I am so sick of the mindset that a great cast can save a movie and/or terrible writing. Should not the actors be chosen on the basis of how well they can play a specific character as opposed to, “Hey, let’s cast Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal. They practically add 50 brownie points to any movie they’re in.” I am 100% sure that, if this movie didn’t have such great thespians, critics would call it, “A generic genre flick whose decent visuals cannot overcome predictable plotting and stolen ideas.” Oh, we’ve just begun the brutal spanking of this movie. Let’s get into the story.
In essence, these guys have come across a living cell in Mars samples gathered by robotic scouts. They nurse the organism back to consciousness (using various sciency things) and all seems well. They even broadcast an update to Earth, where a randomly selected elementary school decides to name it “Calvin.” Soon after, things begin to go wrong. From there, the rest of the movie is; character dies brutally, Calvin disappears, coming up with a plan, plan goes wrong, character dies brutally. Rinse and repeat. In between that, we get to enjoy a cliché sandwich topped with idiocy and a side order of plagiarism.
Remember how the crew in Alien was mostly miners/explores? It made sense that they would not be outfitted for (or expecting) an alien attack. You could fell the pure terror and confusion. In Life, some the best minds (as represented by our ethnically/nationally diverse cast) on Earth are up there. Yet, they find it in themselves to make EVERY DUMB DECISION IN SCI-FI HORROR HISTORY! It’s pointless to list them off because you, the casual reader, have already guessed some of them in your head. I don’t care how much stress you’re under, anyone with half a brain knows not to: split up, try to save someone beyond saving, or go into the room with the murderous alien monster!!! With the exception of the scientist guy, every character that dies does so by sacrificing themselves. This is one of the many things the filmmakers don’t understand, a sacrifice needs to be built up and done only once. When every freaking person is doing it, the impact is lost. It doesn’t help that the pacing is far too slow for this bare-bones plot.
I mentioned Alien earlier, but not the fact that this movie is a rip-off. Some critics defend Life by saying that it took inspiration from Alien as opposed to directly ripping it off. Actually, that is only our nostalgic minds that tell us every horror movie in space is automatically a rip-off of Alien. I don’t think anyone else has pointed this out; Life is a rip off of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). From discovering an alien that was trapped in the ground of a planet, to said alien being extremely difficult to find/kill, to the secondary conflict being “We cannot let this thing get to the rest of humanity.” Nice try director of frickin Safe House, I noticed the uncanny similarities, and I don’t tolerate them. Speaking of The Thing (one of the best horror movies in history), that movie worked because the alien had a weakness, and the characters didn’t give it a non-terrifying name. Throughout the bloated runtime of Life, the characters keep reminding the audience that Calvin is near-indestructible and keeps evolving (minus points for treating the audience like idiots).
Now we arrive at the last third, and this is where I decided to review it over Power Rangers. Throughout the film, I was waiting for that scene in most horror survivors where the characters come together and formulate a plan to kill the monster. Obviously, Calvin cannot be killed with fire, or the emptiness of space, so it looks like it’s going to be a battle of wits (which would have been an excellent way to take the narrative). After all, the characters told us that Calvin is intelligent at least 20 times. For whatever reason, it takes until the last two survivors to come up with a clever trap. Yeah, yeah, they had a few attempts before the climax, but the only plan that actually has a chance of working is the one made by Gyllenhaal (let’s be honest, you only see the actor, nor the character). He and Ferguson are the only two left, the ship is running low on oxygen, and Calvin is still around. Gyllenhaal then tells Ferguson that he will lure Calvin to escape pod A with oxygen flares (Calvin requires oxygen) where he will trap Calvin inside with him, jettison the pod, and manually fly it away from Earth. Ferguson will take escape pod B and attempt re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, their pods fly off course. Ferguson’s pod malfunctions and she flies off into deep space, and Gyllenhaal lands on Earth with Calvin who appears to be creating a nest inside the pod. Ferguson screams, and Gyllenhaal shouts “No!” as a wide shot shows us some fishermen boats coming towards the pod accompanied by Jon Ekstrand’s (taking lessons from the Mica Levi school of long chords) loud score. Cut to black, and we’re treated to the song “Spirit in the Sky” (can we stop using this dang song in movies?).
Alright, where do I freaking start? To start, of all the things that go wrong, the pods hit random debris as they fly. Earlier, another ship collided with their vessel, and the result was some debris being sent into space. However, the exact moment when the pods hit the debris is far too coincidental, especially since the rest of their flight had no issues whatsoever. But what really gets me is the ending. From the get-go, I knew this wasn’t going to have a happy ending (again, Life is very clichéd), but this screenplay is so bad, my dad (who saw it with me) came up with a better ending. “What if Gyllenhaal wanted to take the alien to Earth?” Think about it! From the start of the movie, we know he doesn’t like other people. He’s about to set a record for most days in orbit, and he has taken on more radiation than the human body can handle (implying that he will die soon). In addition, some of his last words to Ferguson are “I belong up here. You think I want to go back down to those 8 billion mother***ers?” Heck, he dislikes humanity because of war, mistreatment, and overpopulation. Bringing the alien to Earth could have been his way of “cleansing” it and starting anew. Not only is that a ballsy, jaw-dropping twist, it would have eliminated the debris plothole (instead, he would have pushed Ferguson out into space as re-entered the atmosphere), and his character would have been much more interesting. If done properly, the audience would have never seen it coming! Ugh! Such wasted potential!
*listens to Hans Zimmer’s S.T.A.Y. and cools down* Alright, to be fair, I may be demanding perfection from a movie that, for better or worse, is basic entertainment. This is a problem of mine; I don’t classify many movies as average (which is the reality) and instead go for the extremes. Despite this, I want to believe that we are beyond the action nonsense of the 90s and the space obsession of the 70s. We are now in a much more story-driven era where audiences have matured and expectations are higher. This is why I hate the term “popcorn flick” it’s an excuse for a movie to be dumb so long as it doesn’t offend you or be too serious. Life doesn’t know if it wants to be mindless fun, or dramatic sci-fi. Because of this, I cannot enjoy it. The writing isn’t intelligent enough to be moving, and the horror elements are stolen. Even the one thing that could have given the film an identity of its own, the aforementioned twist, wasn’t there. My Power Rangers review will be out on Thursday, but for now, Life gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a D.