Friday, March 24, 2017

Life: Terminate all support

Life (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for violence, gore and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.24.17

Director Daniel Espinosa opens his sci-fi chiller with an absolutely stunning sequence: a vertigo-inducing montage that tracks through the narrow, weightless chambers of an orbiting International Space Station, showing each of its six astronaut crewmembers at work.

With a rapidly growing and ferociously hostile alien whatzit close behind, David (Jake
Gyllenhaal) and Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) "swim" through the corridors of the
International Space Station, hoping to trap their pursuer in a single compartment.
The verisimilitude is uncanny, with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey heightening the cramped, claustrophobic environment while tilting this way and that, his camera completing full 360-degree turns as the crew members drift and pull themselves, weightlessly, through every wholly realistic detail of production designer Nigel Phelps’ meticulously constructed corridors and modules.

This is golly-gee-whiz filmmaking at its finest: a prologue clearly intended to one-up Alfonso Cuarón’s equally mesmerizing opening sequence in 2013’s Gravity. This one runs at least five spellbinding minutes, and it’s all — even more amazingly — a single shot, with no cutaways. (Or let’s put it this way: If camera trickery somehow feigned the single shot, the effect is seamless.)

This spectacular preface complete, the action ceases briefly in order to present the film’s title — L – I – F – E — in a somber, sinister font.

At which point, you should get up and leave, because things go downhill from there.

Quite rapidly.

Scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have delivered another textbook example of the so-called “idiot plot,” which lurches from one crisis to the next solely because each and every character behaves like a complete idiot at all times. Our real-world ISS astronauts should sue for character assassination.

Although at its core a shameless rip-off of Alien — with superior, up-to-the-nanosecond special effects — there’s a major difference between this film and that 1979 classic. Sigourney Weaver and her comrades weren’t blithering idiots, and — important distinction — the biologically fascinating critter they faced may have been powerful and dangerous, but it was mortal.

The whatzit foolishly unleashed in Life has the unstoppable fantasy omnipotence of Jason Voorhees or Freddie Krueger. Much worse, these supposedly intelligent, vigorously trained scientist-astronauts are just as foolish, foolhardy and emotionally immature as the slasher fodder in those doomed teenager flicks.

It’s therefore impossible to root for them, or care about them, because Espinosa and his writers treat them like disposable meat-bags. And, given the extraordinary production detail against which this imbecilic story is told, that’s a crushing disappointment.

The story, set in the not too distant future, begins as the ISS crew retrieves a Mars probe that has left the Red Planet’s surface in order to bring soil samples for analysis. The goal is to find some proof of life, no matter how insignificant.

The mood on board is ebullient and hopeful. This chance for intimate study excites Russian cosmonaut Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), who heads the team; mission specialist and spacewalk junkie Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds); mission doctor David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has spent 473 days on the station, and regards it as home; Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), a microbiologist on loan from the Centers for Disease Control; paraplegic British scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare); and flight engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada).

Hugh conducts the initial tests within the confines of the (not so) hermetically sealed lab, while the others watch through bulwarked doorway windows. He finds a single-celled whatzit which, although apparently dead, proves to have been hibernating, after flickering into motion as environmental parameters are adjusted.

The discovery is named Calvin, apparently to give everybody something cute to say while discussing it.

Calvin grows. Slowly, at first. But it becomes large enough, initially plant-like, to explore with tiny “feeler stalks.” Hugh allows it to caress one gloved finger.

At which point, Constant Companion and I exchanged raised eyebrows. “Oh dear,” I whispered. “It’s going to be one of those stories.”

A few days pass, before Calvin is large enough to cause trouble; when the shift occurs, the result is breathtakingly swift. Intelligent protocol at such a moment — Miranda later blathers on, at length, about such “firewall” safeguards, all of which are ignored — should have been swift and severe: jettison the lab compartment into deep space, and blow it up.

But no. Rory, unable to bear seeing his friend being attacked, opens the hatch and charges into the lab, in a rescue attempt.


And we’re off to the races...

Since this “juvenile” Calvin has the elastic, shape-shifting qualities of an octopus, it could have escaped the lab via an air vent anyway — not that such a lab should have any air vents — which would have been slightly more reasonable. Regardless, once loose in the station, it demonstrates a healthy appetite for human blood and viscera (we assume; that isn’t made entirely clear). It also proves quite ambulatory even when left “outdoors” at one point, roaming the ISS exterior until it finds another handy point of entry.

It’s adaptable, ferociously intelligent and apparently indestructible. Our human characters, in great contrast, are rigidly unimaginative, laughably stupid and insufferably easy pickings.

As if that weren’t irritating enough, Reese and Wernick further overstuff this turkey with “crisis overload.” Makeshift weapons go off in the wrong direction, destroying essential equipment. Space debris damages the station in the worst possible way, at the worst possible moment. (In fairness, Gravity also suffered from such calamity contrivance.)

Apparently believing that we viewers need further goosing — as if Calvin’s gory carnage isn’t sufficiently stimulating — Espinosa needlessly amplifies each fresh catastrophe with the thunderously overwrought chords of Jon Ekstrand’s insufferably loud synth score.

Most of the cast members do their best with often inane dialog. Bakare imbues Hugh with dignity, and his useless legs are an intriguing touch. Sanada earns sympathy when Sho shares pictures of his just-born daughter, back on Earth. Rory is a typical wisecracking Reynolds character: cocky, impulsive and loathe to follow orders.

Both women, however, leave something to be desired. Dihovichnaya isn’t the slightest bit credible as a mission commander; all of her line readings lack conviction. Ferguson slides perilously close to “helpless girl” mode, whining from the sidelines and needing to be prodded into useful action.

Which brings us to Gyllenhaal, whose David wanders throughout as if in a marijuana haze. Such behavior supposedly is explained by his excessive time in space, but that hardly justifies his glazed expressions and fortune-cookie dialog. Worst of all, we have to listen as he reads the entirety of Goodnight, Moon during a particularly inopportune moment, while putting faux melodramatic irony into every line.

I’ll give Reese and Wernick mild credit for the clever — if nasty — switcheroo with which they conclude their story. But that doesn’t make up for the preceding 103 minutes of lowest-common-denominator, monster flick nonsense. All stupid movies are unsatisfying, but I’ve a particular loathing for stupid sci-fi movies.

That said, Life does serve a purpose: One hopes, despite its inane excess, that this narrative reinforces the vital importance of precautionary controls, should we ever really come across unknown life Out There.

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