So I've got, like, twelve jobs at the moment. This means that I'm somewhat behind on my movie viewing. I mean, I just caught Hidden Figures and that Russian Guardians movie (both excellent, but for very different reasons).
Anyway, on the suggestion of my brother, I rented and watched the sci-fi thriller Life this past week. Here are some thoughts.
First and foremost, I'm not going to speak to the accuracy in science in this review. There are plenty of better-qualified individuals already taking swipes at that low-hanging fruit.
I want to focus on the overall quality of the movie, from aesthetics to errant plot holes. I'm going to be talking in depth on some story points, so let's get this part out of the way.
WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! WARNING!
First of all, the cast does an admirable job creating interesting characters. While some fairly common tropes are utilized (the astronaut who doesn't want to go home, the one with the new baby, the one who didn't want to be there at all, the one who goes crazy because space is so much better than Earth), most of that is in service to the plot. In fact, some of it pays off nicely.
The plot isn't reinventing the wheel. A group of astronauts aboard the ISS receive a sample of Martian soil and discover a dormant microbe inside. When they awaken the single-celled organism, they rejoice at the definitive proof of life off our planet. But as the cells grow at an alarming rate, they realize that they're locked in a floating metal can with a hostile life form.
There have been many a comparison of this film to Ridley Scott's Alien, as there should. It's very much an homage to the classic sci-fi-horror hit. What separates the two movies is an ability to suspend disbelief and imagine this as a real-life scenario. Again, I don't want to get too in the weeds with the science, but you could almost see this as a terrifying docudrama.
For the first half of the movie, I was downright riveted. The performances were solid, the science was plausible, and the body horror was just enough that my wife didn't walk out of the room. Ryan Reynolds was his normal amount of sassy and charming, without trending into grating. But then the movie starts to shift into a feral, monster-in-the-house vibe that serves it less.
Similar to another sci-fi movie from a few years back (Sunshine), the failings come from a jarring genre swap and a few absurd leaps in logic.
At the beginning of the story, we are told that the cells of our new alien (Calvin) are each capable of being a muscle, a photo receptor, and a brain. Essentially, this means that the creature grows smarter and stronger the larger it gets. That's a pretty awesome idea. Once the killing starts, one of the astronauts takes a moment to vent that she wants to "hate" the creature, even though she knows it is just acting on animal instincts.
But the creature appears to be acting with genuine malice. It seems to need to feed constantly, if it's constant aggression is to be believed. It gains and loses the ability to use tools depending on the screenwriter's whims, and it's nearly indestructible, but can be stunned for short periods to allow greater tension.
The station itself was a bit more of a break in disbelief. The real ISS is enormous, but it is also cramped as hell inside. Think a submarine rather than the USS Enterprise. The movie version is spacious to the point of being ludicrous. It makes sense from a filmmaking standpoint. It would simply be too difficult to set up the necessary shots in such a tight space. As it is, the winding modules and blind corners add plenty to the fear factor.
Visually, the film is gorgeous. The CGI is shiny without appearing too fake, the alien is realistic, and the sense of weightlessness is palpable. I would say that, in 2017, we expect as much from our space films. It's no longer acceptable to have a crappy-looking movie.
As a last point, I want to talk about the twist. Again, spoilers.
So, near the end of the movie, two scientists are left aboard a sinking (falling) station. Considering the durability of the alien so far, they are understandably concerned that the creature will survive the ISS's fiery return to Earth. This thing poses an extinction-level threat to life on Earth. It cannot be allowed to survive.
There are two escape pods, and one of the scientists decides he will fly the thing out into deep space where they can both die. Surprise surprise, this is the same astronaut who lamented ever having to return to Earth (poetry in motion!). The other scientist will ride the second pod to Earth to warn them of what happened.
When the two pods launch, one with alien aboard, the movie plays a shell game. The image cuts back and forth between interior and exterior. One of the pods hits debris, but both are show spinning wildly. At the last second, one pod peels off toward deep space while the other plummets to Earth.
When the falling pod makes it safely to a splash landing, a local fishing boat goes to investigate. When they get to the pod window, we see...the alien-filled ship! Cut to our poor doomed scientist spiraling helplessly into the void, while down below an injured astronaut screams for the fisherman not to open the hatch. But then, with a hiss of escaping air, the door is open. Cue a rising drone/helicopter shot and a cut to black.
Look, as far as twists go, it's not unexpected. There were two ways the movie was going to end, and they went with Plan B. What made this twist so engaging was two-fold. 1) The expert editing that fed you a false interpretation of the events. 2) The fact that pretty much every movie these days has a happy ending.
I LOVE when the bad guys win in movies. I think it is such a dark and thrilling thing to see evil take the wheel at the end. There is so much more potential for the next chapter of the story. Think Empire Strikes Back.
Anyway, that's my super late, super quick review of Life, a movie that was made.