Monday, March 27, 2017

A Reel Review: LIFE

Much like science-fiction and fantasy, horror is a genre of film which can get away with a lot. Fans of the genre are always willing to overlook the silliness of monsters, aliens, or guys with big knives who are impossible to kill, for as long as the scares, gore, and thrills keep coming. The “horror” of such a film is always priority, with things like character and story always coming second. This is the style for director Daniel Espinosa’s space-horror flick LIFE, for better and for worse.

On the International Space Station, a six-person crew (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya), receive a sample from Mars which contains the first evidence of life from another planet. The organism, nicknamed Calvin, grows and escapes, and begins killing crew members one at a time…

LIFE is a closed-quarters thriller which doesn’t have much by way of plot. Survival is the only thing our characters have to achieve while figuring out just what Calvin gets out of slaughtering people. Once Calvin gets unleashed and begins to grow, most of the film involves the crewmembers floating from one part of the station to the next, closing hatches and re-opening them again as they flee and try to find a strategy before they run out of people.

Much like any other horror flick, the people aboard this station are thinly drawn with only one dimension to each one of them. There’s the standard collection of archetypes; a logical scientist, a medical doctor who is love with space, a wisecracking smartass, a cosmonaut, and an overzealous scientist who just can’t help himself…and it’s that overzealous and dumb action which sets Calvin off on his rampage, and sums up the films fatal flaws. The crew in LIFE make idiotic decisions one after another such as petting the alien like a goddamn hamster, opening doors which should stay closed, and overall using no logic whatsoever to guide their actions. There’s also a mild twist in the second act which makes no sense at all, and Calvin always conveniently shows up at a part of the ship a character is trying to repair. Overall it seems like the screenwriters were more concerned with moving plot points than character actions making sense.

But if its horror that matters, then LIFE delivers. Calvin’s design resembles a sea creature which resembles a squid and jellyfish, topped off with a fuck-you monster head; it manages to be beautifully graceful and terrifying at the same time, especially as it grows bigger. The character deaths are fucking horrific to see, and the sound-editors did great work in delivering the horror as we hear every bone get crushed and blood gargle up close. The tension building is well done, and even when Calvin is small, there’s still terror to be had when we see the many places and cavities it can get into.

Calvin looks great as a CGI creature, and other visual effects from the space station to the views of Earth are stunning. The characters are in zero-gravity the entire time, and whatever method they used to make everyone float around is very well executed. The space station itself is a maze of narrow tube-like corridors which has no distinction from one area to the next, which leads to a poor sense of place as we seldom have any idea where we are in the station at any time. The score by Jon Ekstrand is fantastic.

Acting is pretty good even though every actor has zip to work with in character development, and are limited to one dimension only. Jake Gyllenhall and Rebecca Ferguson get the most work, and they do good work in selling the horror of the situation, even when they’re acting against a CGI creature which wasn’t present on set. The rest of the cast is fine, even though Ryan Reynolds seems saddled with playing a wiseass for the 867th time. And small credit is due to the screenwriters in not being afraid to kill off a top-billed actor in the first half-hour.

The finale delivers one hell of a twist which acts as an exclamation point to the horrific nature of the movie, most of which could have been avoided if the script didn’t rely on scientists who acted like idiots, and the aforementioned minor twist which felt like a major shortcut. As a horror-flick, LIFE certainly delivers the scares, but as a functional film it drops out of orbit…and that’s an imbalance that can’t be overlooked.


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