LIFE review by Mark Walters – Jake Gyllenhaal & Ryan Reynolds find an alien lifeform

LIFE review by Mark Walters – Jake Gyllenhaal & Ryan Reynolds find an alien lifeform

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Space travel continues to be a fascinating topic for big screen productions, and the idea of discovering alien life isn’t even that far-fetched anymore. We’ve already sent probes to Mars, and NASA is plotting the first manned journey there which may happen sooner than you think. But science sometimes teaches us that the unknown isn’t always something to be tampered with. And what happens if we do discover life on Mars? The new film appropriately titled LIFE explores this very idea, in a rather frightening way.

The multicultural International Space Station (aka ISS) has a sudden retrieval mission given to them. The team consists of two women and four men. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) is a dedicated leader who does what the higher ups command her to, sometimes while withholding info from her team. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a loner astronaut who holds the record of longest time spent in space, perhaps to his own detriment. Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) is a Russian pilot not afraid of a challenge. Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a flight commander with a newborn baby on the way back home. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is a scientist enjoying space as his bad legs would have him in a wheelchair on earth. And Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is a wise-cracking hotshot astronaut who can fix anything. They must recover a damaged probe returning from Mars with soil samples, and it’s coming in hot. Rory, manages to snag it and save the samples on board, which Hugh begins testing. It’s important to the crew (and especially Miranda) that they find something within these samples, so the trip and effort isn’t all for nothing. Hugh hits the jackpot and discovers a micro-organism that appears to still be alive. He nurtures it and it grows, behaving almost animal-like and showing genuine curiosity toward human interaction. In a PR move they even let kids back home name the alien lifeform “Calvin” after their school. When the ship experiences a sudden pressure issue in the lab, Calvin seems to go dead, so Hugh attempts to literally shock it back to life… which works, but with a very negative reaction. Now Calvin, this exciting lifeform they all thought was so great, has become a literally growing threat to everyone on board, and the crew realizes this is not something they can afford to let escape.

I can almost see the Hollywood executives sitting in a boardroom and talking about this film, saying something along the lines of “It’s like GRAVITY meets ALIEN, only we’ll make it a thinking man’s horror movie!” In some ways it succeeds at that, but suffers the unfortunate fate Sci-Fi movies sometimes fall into – trying too hard to be smart that they over-explain everything to the audience. As my friend Andy (who saw this with me) put it, we don’t need to have every aspect of space explained to us in your space movie. That said, the tension is pretty effective, and as a horror movie (which it almost feels weird to label it with) it actually does work more often than not.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa (SAFE HOUSE), LIFE is an odd mix of brilliant sequences that sometimes get bogged down with awkward staging. For example, there’s shots where major stuff is happening, but the camera isn’t properly framing the action, making it hard for the audience to fully comprehend what’s going on. There’s other shots where I literally wish they had angled the camera up or down to better show the focal point… again, just awkward. The movie walks a fine line between science and horror, and at times it’s risky even when it works. It’s also a bit too short and could have seen benefit from a bit of expansion on the characters’ backstories. One of the best things about the film is the cast, who all give 110%. It’s safe to say Jake Gyllenhaal is the “star” here, but Rebecca Ferguson gets almost equal screentime and does a fine job holding her own with the mostly male counterparts. Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare, and Hiroyuki Sanada are all quite good as the supporting crew members, and each get rather wonderful moments to shine. The only stunt casting comes in the form of Ryan Reynolds, who feels like he’s just there to play his typical wisecracking charmer… and he does, and it’s fine, but there’s not much beyond it.

It’s a little spoiler-ish to mention Calvin’s storyline up front, but the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who wrote DEADPOOL!) telegraphs future events pretty early on. Once the story turns into a “who is going to die next” archetype, you pretty much know what to expect. The big complaint I imagine most will have for LIFE is that it’s either not enough science, or not enough horror, as it’s a tricky thing to balance the two. Good example, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN versus Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS – one is pure horror, the other tries to science it up and kind of ends up a mess. LIFE isn’t a bad film by any means, and if you like Sci-Fi (or horror flicks) it’s worth a look, and it is rather entertaining, I just left wishing it was something different… and the weird thing is I can’t quantify what that “different” is, but I know was sort of hoping for something else. I’ll say this, I had mad respect for them ending it the way they did, which may also be divisive for some viewers. Let us know what you think in the comments below.

LIFE opens March 24, 2017

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community’s leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.