Life (2017) [dir. Daniel Espinosa]

Posted: March 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

“Life” is the textbook definition of generic. The film comes close to not having a single, original bone in its body. Watching the film, I was struck by how a movie this well-made, with good actors, and written by the guys who wrote “Zombieland” and “Deadpool”, could make such an utterly pointless film that has no reason to exist.

Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have written other films that weren’t very good, but those were obviously jobs they did just for the money and to try to break into the business (“Cruel Intentions 3”). After “Zombieland” and “Deadpool”, two films that comment on their respective genres without being outright parodies, they would seem to have enough clout in the business to earn them the goodwill to get a project they are passionate about made. So why, then, do we have “Life”, a film that feels like it came out of the bargain bin at Blockbuster video circa 1996? Did the writers pull one of their early scripts from the bottom of a drawer and get a studio to finance it? It seems like a pretty empty project to feel passionate about, if this is a film they have strived to make for a while. Honestly, I have no idea what the production history surrounding this film is, so I have no idea why Reese and Wernick wrote this, but the fact that the film feels like it could be written in an afternoon by anyone who has watched a sufficient number of sci-fi films is not a good sign. I didn’t watch the writers’ failed “Zombieland” TV pilot for Amazon, but I know it received negative notices. I’m starting to wonder if their writing talent fluctuates in and out from project to project. Having never seen another film by the director, Daniel Espinosa, I can’t be sure how much to place on him.

Directorially, there’s not much to complain about with the film. It’s competantly made, even if there is a distinct lack of tension in many of the key scenes, though perhaps the script’s predictability undercuts that more than a director can make up for. The effect of weightlessness on the characters is conveyed nicely, with subtle movements to hair and fabric pulling off the illusion quite nicely. The filmmakers obviously studied how “Gravity” pulled off its tricks, and benefited accordingly. I similarly have no problems with the shot composition or editing, and the space station of the film’s geography and layout weren’t confusing. Overall, the skill put into the film is satisfactory at the very least.

We are also given a good cast to watch these proceedings unfold with. Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ariyon Bakare all do the job that is expected of them, though their characters are maybe given one personality trait a piece to raise them about a one-dimensional sketch of a human being. One’s paralyzed, one’s depressed, one’s a jokester, one has a baby, etc. If it weren’t for the actors who portray them, there would be no reason to care about any of these people. Unlike, say, “Alien”, the film “Life” most resembles on a surface level, this film doesn’t take its time to slowly build dread, making us as an audience feel like we’re on the ship with the characters, and thus having us bond with them even though we don’t learn much about them beyond a few traits. “Life” moves fast, and we already know where it’s going.

The scientists discover a single-celled organism in a soil sample from Mars. Earth is apprised of the discovery, and an elementary school is allowed to name the organism Calvin, after the school, which itself is named after Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, was probably the first Republican that can pointed to as being a small government Conservative. If naming a murderous alien being after him has anything to do with politics, I wish the writers would have made that more clearly.

Anyway, the scientists experiment with bringing it out of a state of hibernation, which it was in when found in the soil. They do this by playing with atmosphere and glucose levels. If you were tricked into thinking this film might be interesting by dealing with an evil alien with a film that was Hard Sci-fi instead of Soft Sci-Fi, well, I have bad news to tell you. Anyway, Calvin wakes up, then there’s a bit of trouble with its containment unit, and it goes back into hibernation. They try to wake him back up with electric shocks and, well, I guess Calvin didn’t like that. From then on the film involves him attacking the crew as he absorbs more organic material for food and grows bigger and bigger.

The creature design of Calvin is kind of nice. He starts off as looking something like a cross between a jellyfish and a starfish, but small and with veins underneath a translucent exterior. He becomes more like crab-like as he grows in size, until eventually obtaining an evil-looking face. Why a creature that, we’re told, has every cell of its body as equal parts muscle, nerve, and eye cell would even have a face (especially with no endo or exoskeleton) is odd.

Anyway, the creature kills the crew in about the order you expect them to die in. The location of the creation on the ship is sometimes a secret, and sometimes they have ways of tracking it. The ideas behind these are kind of fun (like when it tried to get back inside through the thrusters), but mostly the whole film unfolds with the blase attitude of been-there-done-that. A supposed “twist” at the end, well, you see it coming from a mile away.

I don’t expect every film to be original, and I certainly have more leniency with certain genres of horror film. What I do expect is for the film to present me with some new elements to make the viewing experience worthwhile: one story idea I’d never seen done before, an interesting character or two, a visual style that’s new or at least repurposed in an interesting way, etc. “Life” gives you nothing. It’s not so dull that I felt like I was watching a blank movie screen for the duration of its runtime (“The Strangers”, I’m looking in your direction), but when a film is so lacking in ANYTHING to differentiate it from any other film of its genre, I fail to see a reason why anyone should spend time watching it. “Life” isn’t a bad movie, it’s just a waste of time. C

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