SXSW Film Review: ‘Life’

'Life' Review: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Slipping into theaters two months before 'Alien: Covenant,' this slick, suspenseful sci-fi thriller features smart characters making dumb decisions in space.

Why is it that practically every time sci-fi characters discover evidence of extraterrestrial life, they are just as swiftly confronted with creative new ways to die? As “we are not alone” scenarios go, “Life” is no exception, although it’s unusually intelligent for so much of its running time — picture white-knuckle “Alien” hijinks grounded by “Gravity”-strong human drama — that the lame-brained last act comes as a real disappointment (unless you’re determined to read this Sony-released Mars-attacks thriller as an origin story for Spider-Man’s Venom nemesis, which it is not).

Still, overlook its inevitable wah-wah ending (cue sad trombone sound effect), and “Life” is far better than the trailers made this me-too outer-space opus look. Assuming that “Passengers” hasn’t quashed audiences’ appetite for space-station movies, and that sci-fi enthusiasts wouldn’t rather simply wait for Ridley Scott’s fast-approaching “Alien: Covenant,” then director Daniel Espinosa’s mostly-smart, plenty-stylish entry could eke out a nice box-office life.

Working in its favor is an international cast — even more inclusive than “The Martian’s” multi-culti support crew — with the added bonus that everyone, not just white-boy A-listers Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, has an important role to play. The six-person ensemble make up the Mars Pilgrim 7 Mission, sardined aboard a claustrophobic space station whose Nigel Phelps-designed floorplan proves positively mind-boggling — this despite a stunning establishing tour, during which, via an “unbroken” (but vfx-assisted) nearly-seven-minute single take, the camera makes the rounds of what will soon be a $200 billion coffin. Clearly determined to rival Emmanuel Lubezki’s Oscar-winning work on “Gravity,” DP Seamus McGarvey hovers just over the shoulders of the crew during this opening scene, as they diligently collaborate to recover a Martian-specimen-collecting capsule carrying God knows what.

At first, the alien being — which is soon christened “Calvin” — appears to be an innocuous, inert single-celled life form, visible only beneath a high-powered microscope. But when lead scientist Hugh Derry (British actor Arlyon Bakare, buff-upper-bodied but CG-withered from the waist down as a disabled doc who doesn’t need his wheelchair in zero gravity) feeds the organism glycerin, it swiftly multiplies, exhibiting characteristics that are a credit to screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s creativity: every cell has muscular, neural, and photoreceptive properties, suggesting the potential for an incredibly strong, fast-adapting entity.

To celebrate the discovery, horns blare on Jon Ekstrand’s constantly shape-shifting score (one moment, he’s waxing optimistic with low-key strings, the next, he’s amplifying the tension via “Inception”-style foghorns). Hugh can hardly contain his enthusiasm, though there are other crew members on board to take precautions, most notably Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson, the most disciplined character in the motley ensemble), representing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — because nobody knows what Calvin is capable of, even after he’s attacked Hugh and face-hugged one of the other crew members.

It’s Miranda’s job to design firewalls the alien can’t breach, while it appears to be everyone else’s (unofficial) task to create opportunities for Calvin to get out. This is where a movie that has taken great pains in its stunning first act (a bit pokey for genre fans, but impressive in its willingness to give characters like Gyllenhaal’s Syria-surviving space medic a backstory before snuffing them one by one) makes a gradual turn for the worse. You see, the aptly named “Life” isn’t just about making a landmark discovery that could provide clues to life’s “nature, its origin, and maybe even its meaning”; it’s also about the biological imperative for survival, and the way in which even the cleverest humans will ignore their training in order to prevent their own deaths, and those of the people they care about.

But “Life” isn’t an especially philosophical movie, and it’s weakest when the screenplay pretends to be making protocol-questioning decisions in the heat of the moment. As Miranda could attest, if Calvin turns hostile — and it doesn’t take long for that to happen — the entire crew should be prepared to sacrifice their lives in order to prevent the “symbiote” (to borrow the term used to describe Venom, even though Calvin never lingers long on a human host) from finding its way back to earth. Instead, the characters — and Gyllenhaal’s David Jordan in particular — are so empathetic, they’re constantly opening hatches that should remain locked shut in order to save goner crewmates, or themselves.

On the plus side, such ill-advised and undisciplined behavior serves to boost the suspense considerably, and even though we can never quite get a handle on what Calvin can do — the invertebrate creature can insta-digest an entire rat, withstand prolonged exposure to fire, go long stretches without oxygen, survive in sub-zero space, and propel itself through narrow apertures — one thing is clear: it ain’t friendly. (It also isn’t true to the screenwriters’ concept for long, eventually taking on a multi-tentacled, menacing-squid form that looks like something out of Patrick Tatopoulos’ playbook.)

Fans of “Deadpool” duo Reese and Wernick may be disappointed to find precious few genre-savvy wisecracks in the finished film (though a nerdy “Re-Animator” reference survives). Frankly, “Life” could have used a few more cathartic laughs, although it’s a relief that the entire movie isn’t as self-aware or sarcastic as the writers’ reputation-making “Zombieland.” While that high-attitude approach may have been the right fit for an undead spoof, “Life” benefits from a certain seriousness of tone — one that Swedish-born director Espinosa (“Easy Money”) sustains even when the characters’ choices start to get silly.

We can understand why senior crewmember Sho Murakami (Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, resuscitated from Danny Boyle’s semi-similar “Sunshine”) might risk his life to be reunited with his newborn son on earth, but Espinosa’s heretofore elegant direction suddenly gets sloppy during the climactic moment, when this Toshiro Mifune-like tough guy might have had an “Aliens”-iconic faceoff with Calvin. Weirdly, the only person who behaves in a responsible way is Russian cosmonaut Ekaterina Golovkina (ethereal “Twilight Portrait” star Olga Dihovichnaya, whom more Hollywood directors should cast pronto), but the movie is better served by bad decisions. “Life’s” a thrill when it’s smart, but it’s even more exciting when the characters are dumb — which is ultimately a paradox the film wears proudly, to the possible extinction of the human race.

SXSW Film Review: 'Life'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (closer), March 18, 2017. MPAA Rating: RRunning time: 103 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures release of a Columbia Pictures, Skydance presentation of a Skydance production. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya. Producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Bonnie Curtis, and Julie Lynn. Executive producers: Don Granger, Vicki Dee Rock.

Crew

Director: Daniel Espinosa. Screenplay: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick. Camera (color, widescreen): Seamus McGarvey. Editor: Frances Parker, Mary Jo Markey. Music: Jon Ekstrand.

With

Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Olga Dihovichnaya, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare.

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  1. RIDICULOUS MOVIE WITH “PAUL THE OCTOPUS”(CGI CALVIN)
    I FEEL SORRY FOR THE ACTORS.
    THE END IS STOLEN FROM “CAPSULE” (2015)

  2. mrarcadian says:

    Stupid movie people loses their minds to quickly, i mean how stupid can one be to even work in an alien so quickly. They went from smart to dumb on a drop of a dime. Sad movie. Plus the alien cant survive in salt water. So end of movie.

  3. Captain Mitch says:

    Liked it, yes, enjoyed all. As a seasoned fan of Sci-Fi I can say that yes there were some dumb actions by the crew and the creature grew a bit too fast without ingesting sustenance (unless we are to assume it consumed some bits of the crew as it crawled in and out of mouths) but, the break up of the ISS is great, (reminiscent of SPACE w/ S Bullock). We gave it a 7 or 8 out of 10 (10 being Alien 1 or 2) As to the fast approaching and long awaited Ridley Scott sequel, we are keeping fingers crossed that it is at least as good as Alien 3.

  4. DazWorld says:

    I bet Ridley laughed his a** off when he watched this tripe.

  5. Ramey Zamora says:

    This is a very good movie from almost every standpoint. Loved the atmosphere, the tech, the script, and especially the characters. I thought Sho’s child was a daughter, and checked out “Mei” (found out it is a girl’s name). Wondered why nobody tried taking a scalpel (or machete) to Calvin, like to remove it from Hugh’s hand, because seeing it regenerate itself might have been fun, but hey – you can’t have everything. And the ending? I loved it! Talk about courageous on the part of the film makers. And pardon my naivete, it surprised me. I’ll see “Life” again for its production qualities and everything else about it.

  6. Nataly Blowe says:

    This is why Stargate SG1 was the most on point rendition of what life could be like working and dealing with other worlds and beings. You had the best minds doing nothing but problem solving and executing as opposed to these brilliant minds doing so poorly under circumstances they were definitely trained for. All in all I liked it mainly for the great images and music and the creative way they found to kill of characters that left me feeling sick at times. E.g. Ryan Reynolds’ death. Haha the nastiest! I had to side with that being because it was doing what it needed to to survive just like humans do.

  7. Barry says:

    Terrible movie

  8. Joe says:

    Saw it this evening. Good movie very nearly ruined by masochistic, cheesy ending you can spot a mile away, telling yourself “please don’t do it”. Yep, they do it. Otherwise, a well done sci-fi thriller on the vein of Alien.

  9. Bob says:

    “White-boy A listers”? Calm down with the reverse racism.

    • Stevador says:

      Buhbye, Suzy Sensitive. I applaud the writer for pointing out that in the past, Hollywood would cast movies like this with ALL “Ryan” and “Jake”. Hollywood, and the world, are moving forward. You can stand on the sideline and shake your fist and scream fake news at progress aa it passes you by. Healthcare much?

      • Em says:

        Stevador, you’re right that progression is good, and no one’s saying it’s a bad thing – that more actors of different ethnicities and cultures are cast these days. It’s great thing! And I am glad to see it because I am from a different cultural background myself. But racism is racism – towards white people also. These so called “White-boy A Listers” in this movie probably didn’t do anything to hurt anyone and happen to be pretty talented, so its not right to point out our frustrations (of Hollywood’s often bias nature) at their expense. It would be a lot more ‘progressive’ to just make a change – by continuing to cast more talented actors from different backgrounds instead of pointing fingers, don’t you think?

  10. kesha Washington says:

    Stop reading once the article went racist and started identifying people in the movie by their color of skin. Why is media and Hollywood so racist now. I thought we wanted a world where we are identified by our personalities. Not stereo typed by color or sex. World’s going backwards..

  11. Karla Ortiz says:

    I loved the trailer and watching Ryan and Jake in action is something that I will definitely see more than once

  12. Bill B. says:

    I don’t go to movies that often anymore due to the cost. Mostly go in the fall/winter when the best stuff comes out, but this is one that is going to get my money.

    • Kevin Henke says:

      Umm umm, fall and winter are historically the worst time for movies to come out; spring and summer are where the awards generate from. Keep in mind the use of historic

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