IT'S 'LIFE', JIM ...

Blimey, that Jake Gyllenhaal's changed.  He looks just like Ryan Reynolds.  And Reynolds, he's apparently had a sex change.  Who knew?
            I had no expectations of ‘Life’ ... If you see what I mean.  I’d seen the trailer months ago but had completely forgotten it.  I’d seen the poster, so I knew who was in it (even if the poster designers didn’t) and I knew it had spacesuits.
            It’s quite rare to be able to approach a film with no expectations but, when I have successfully achieved this rarefied state, I usually find it’s the best place from which to approach a film.  This allows the story to unravel at its own pace.
            The opening is a fairly confusing, as we travel around the International Space Station in a continuous shot (meaning: CGI-enhanced series of linked shots à la Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu) while the crew are attempting to use their robot arm to capture a passing spaceship.
            They soon wish they hadn’t bothered.  The Mars Lander, ‘Pilgrim’, is the spaceship in question and it has soil samples from Mars on board.  The astronauts check these samples for signs of life and, sure enough, they find some.  They find an inert single-cell organism which they revive with a mix of gases and growth medium.
            There is an interestingly subtle touch of foreshadowing in these early scenes.  When they capture the spaceship, they signal their success with the words “Pilgrim has arrived on Plymouth Rock.”  Interesting way to put it, I thought; ’cos the last time Pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock, it didn’t really work out well for the indigenous people.  Then the colonial subtext is extended, when the great American public decide to call the new life-form ‘Calvin’.
            When Calvin is safe in his glass box (the so-called ‘fire wall’), the astronauts note how swiftly it grows and changes, evolving before their eyes.  It demonstrates basic intelligence and curiosity about its surroundings.  It becomes a little jelly starfish, almost cute, until it decides it wants out.  But, even then, it is defending itself and simply striving to stay alive.  Can’t blame the little fella.  These early scenes are tense and entirely credible and, when it does break out, the violence is sudden and eye-avertingly visceral.

            But, scene-by-scene, this film, which was doubtless pitched as “Alien Meets Gravity”, gets less and less credible.  The creature seems to know things about the space station and the crew that it can’t possibly know.  It outsmarts their every tactic.  They even try the old standby of blasting it out of the airlock, and it effortlessly survives that.  There are far too many moments when my rational brain took to its metaphorical feet, pointed at the screen and yelled “How the fuck did that happen?”
            As it grows, Calvin becomes more familiar, essentially turning into a Cthulhu tentacle-monster with a beak.  I swear, there was a moment when it is face to face with a crew member and another little voice in my head sang “Feed me Seymour”.  It’s difficult to stay scared of something that could burst into song at any moment.  Apart from Ed Sheeran, obviously.
            Familiarity is a real problem in monster movies.  It seems that H.P. Lovecraft and H.R. Geiger thought up the perfect monsters and no one has had anything particularly new to add since.  Apart from Del Toro.  I really wish Del Toro had got to make his At the Mountains of Madness.
            A lot of very familiar horror movie tropes are in place here, and that’s fine in a film with a sense of fun.  But this film is deadly serious.  Hang on ... The script was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who wrote Deadpool last year, and Ryan Reynolds is in there, and still it’s deadly serious? 
            ’Fraid so.  
Ryan Reynolds, polishing his helmet again.
            Part of the problem is that none of the other characters are really allowed to shine.  The dialogue is functional, occasionally ridiculously expositional.  The personalities and narrative function of the characters means they just feel disposable.  I know that most everyone is disposable in a film like this, but it’s nice when they at least try and pretend that isn’t the case.
            Another problem with familiarity, comes with the casting.  Reynolds plays the devil-may-care astronaut with the witty one-liners.  That must have been a stretch for him.  While Jake Gyllenhaal plays the serious-minded, loner astronaut.  Again, a total change of pace from his usual pie-in-the-face performances.  To be fair, they both do their jobs very well and, in both cases, it’s mostly while appearing to float in zero g.  Gotta give ’em credit for that!

Jolly japester Jake, attempting to prove that this film can hold a candle to Alien.
            When a horror B movie gets A list actors on board, it promptly stops being a B movie, and that seems to stifle the commitment to making the movie genuinely scary.  I’m thinking of the lamentable big-budget remake of The Haunting (1999) and other more-money-than-scares horrors like What Lies Beneath (2000), Ghost Ship (2002) and The Invasion (2007).  Horror movies are at their best when they’re cheap and nasty.
            It is to this film’s credit, therefore, that it succeeds in being very nasty!  And there are a couple of moments in there which were genuinely surprising and which pleased me greatly.  I like to be surprised by movies.  It helps me believe I’m not cynical and jaded.  But, overall, the film never successfully transcends everything that is obviously contained in the logline ‘Alien meets Gravity’.
            And there has already been much discussion on t’interweb about the film’s shocking conclusion.  I’m sorry, but I never imagined it ending any other way.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa.
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Dur: 103 mins
Cert 15

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