Cinema Dispatch: Life

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Life and all the images you see in this review are owned by Columbia Pictures

Directed by Daniel Espinosa

What’s with movies trying to tell us that Space is totally scary!?  I LIKE space!  That’s where all the Star Trek stuff happens!  I mean, between Ridley Scott’s Alien, Gravity from a few years ago, and now THIS movie, it’s like Hollywood has a grudge against NASA or something!  This may be the most overt example though considering it’s literally called LIFE which is about the FIRST FORM OF LIFE WE’VE DISCOVERED OUTSIDE OF EARTH (from freaking MARS of all places) is apparently a serial killing jellyfish monster.  Anyway, does this latest entry into the horror sci-fi genre turn out to be another classic, or is this yet another uninspired snooze fest trying to grasp onto ideas that have already been done in much better movies?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins IN SPAAAAAAACE on what I believe is supposed to be the International Space Station, but it could just be a unique space station for this movie.  The six member crew of this station (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya) receive a package from a probe that was sent to Mars which has some dirt samples for them to analyze, and of course they find a single living cell tucked away inside; confirming once and for all that there is life outside of Earth.  Of course, the cell turns out to be PURE EVIL as it grows SUPER fast and eventually turns into some white squid/bat looking thingy which starts to wreak havoc on the crew members and on the integrity of the station itself.  Can our fearless astronauts stop this space menace from killing them all and destroying the station?  Failing that, can they keep the monster from making it back to Earth and presumably destroying all life on it!?  WHY DIDN’T THEY BRING SOME SPACE MARINES ABOARD IN CASE SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPENED!?  Master Chief could have solved this in minute!!

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HOLY SHIT!  How did a space squid manage to do THAT!?

One of my favorite films of all time is John Carpenter’s The Thing, and for the most part his films during those halcyon days are some of the best in their respective genres.  For the most part, this film is trying to be to modern audiences what The Thing and especially the first Alien were to their respective generations.  For the VAST majority of this movie, I think it succeeds.  It knows how to lay with tension and how to build up the sense of horror rather than relying solely on surprises and jump scares.  The setting and its characters are fleshed out so that you give a shit when things go bad for them and even for the space station itself which was a beacon of hope and progress for humanity.  It has all the elements in place to be a fantastic and unnerving science fiction horror flick, even to the point where it’s self-aware of its own existence as such… and yet it just didn’t grab me the same way that other films in the upper echelon of this genre managed to do.  Then again, the only other film that is even comparable to it that we’ve gotten in quite some time would be Splice which I will give the edge to in terms of quality, but when you come up in second place to a movie like that then you’ve already proven yourself to be a spectacular and extremely entertaining film.  There are points in here which are just as good as The Thing, Alien, or even Splice, and while it’s not quite at that level the whole time, it’ll still probably end up being one of the best films of its kind we’ll get this year.  Hell, I’ll even predict that Alien: Covenant falls short of this when we finally get to see that in a few months.

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WHO COULD HAVE SEEN THIS COMING!?

What works about it is honestly not that interesting as its basic nuts and bolts horror filmmaking.  How do you build suspense?  Slowly erode the barriers that are protecting our heroes from the monster chasing them or danger in general; whether it’s the more literal examples of a containment area failing to keep the monster at bay or more environmental threats as the mechanisms that keep them alive in such an unforgiving environment give way to this chaotic and unexpected presence.  The monster remains scary for the most part, but it’s due less to the inherently threatening nature of its design or power set; rather the filmmakers know how to present this threat and effectively pace out its series of attacks to create a tightly bound tension-release cycle throughout.  Now sure, some of these can get a bit silly (did they seriously run out of fuel after using the boosters for about 35 seconds!?), but the film manages to overcome these stumbling blocks simply by how well it delivers on the tension and suspense whenever it dips into these sillier moments.

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“The ship!  The ship!  The ship is on fire!  We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn!  BURN MOTHERFUCKER!  BURN!!”

The production itself is something to behold as well which is impeccably shot and incredibly well realized.  All the little dials, levers, and tablets that are required to keep this thing afloat, the myriad of straps and Velcro needed to hold any one person in place, even the fact that we have the technology now to make a movie without some made up science to explain why there’s no gravity.  Everyone is floating around in this space station like they really would be if they were in space, and as far as I can tell it was pretty seamless of an effect.  Speaking of seamless, this also gives them a chance to have some fun with the cinematography as there’s no real up or down, so a scene where you’re seeing some people work at a computer can effortlessly transition to them being upside without ever drawing attention to this fact.  Now there is one thing that I didn’t think worked in regards to the sets and was a huge distraction throughout.  For some reason, in a movie that’s trying this hard to create a believable space station, there are no freaking lights at all.  You’d think that a laboratory or a medical examination room, or even a freaking gym would have florescent lighting, but no.  The only discernable light sources seem to be the glow of table screens and the occasional LED tap light stuck to a wall.  The movie is trying to have it both ways by grounding itself in something RESEMBLING reality, but then ignoring bothersome things that would get in the way of this being a spooky film such as the fact that people don’t tend to like living in darkness and that no one would design a space station so that it’d be hard to see where the hell all the buttons are!

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“Welcome to the rumpus room!  This is where we put the ONE LIGHT we had so that you can read books and stuff!”

Since we’re on the topic already, as good as this movie is it has one major problem which can basically be boiled down to INCONSISTENCY.  Pacing feels a bit off in the first act as we jump ahead several times with on screen notifications letting us know just how much time has passed, but then the rest of the movie is in the span of like three hours.  It seems odd that they put such a spotlight on the amount of time that’s being skipped when a simple montage would have served the same purpose and would have been easier to transition from when going for a more real-time pacing.  The other big inconsistency is tone.  While I do concede that the movie is aware that it is silly, I don’t think they realize to what extent because HOLY SHIT is this a goofy ass film!  Now to be fair, I’m not a biologist nor am I an astronaut, so maybe all the absurdities in this movie are TOTALLY legit scientifically… but I sort of doubt it.  They throw out so many scientific terms to explain what this monster is, yet none of it makes any sense and the monster is about as scientifically accurate as The Blob or the Gremlins.  Motherfucker is smarter than anyone on board, cannot be killed with fire, can survive in the vacuum of space, and can eat a grown as man’s internal organs within two minutes of shoving itself down their throat.  This is so fucking over the top that I’m pretty sure those samples they got weren’t from Mars; they came from an unmarked grave in Crystal Lake.  This wouldn’t be so jarring though if the characters in the movie didn’t keep talking about it like it was some sort of science experiment (even going so far as to say that it’s not evil and that hating it is irrational), yet it’s basically an albino bat with super strength and a GED.  The creature could have pulled out a hat and cane and then do a little jig before stabbing someone in the brain, and it would not feel out of place in this absurd world where a creature that REQUIRES AIR TO SURVIVE CAN SOMEHOW COME FROM MARS!!  With any alien movie, there’s always needs to be a bit of suspension of disbelief since we don’t ACTUALLY know what an alien would look like as we haven’t found any yet (OR MAYBE THAT’S JUST WHAT THE GOVERNMENT WANTS US TO THINK!), but the movie has to fit with the creature it’s presenting.  I will give it credit that it knows it’s a pulpy sci-fi movie at points and has some tongue in cheek moments (why else would you hire Ryan Reynolds?), but the movie didn’t seem to want to commit entirely to being goofy which leads to a bit of disconnect between the SUPER SERIOUS SCIENCE SCENES and there being a straight up horror movie slasher tearing through the god damn space station like this is Jason X; a movie that is much worse (even though I still like it), yet doesn’t have a problem with tonal inconsistency.

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Can we just draw an evil mustache on this thing and maybe give it a cape?

I ended up harping a lot on the film’s one flaw, and while it is worth pointing out as it’s something persistent throughout the whole movie, it’s ultimately rather minor in the grand scheme of things.  Do I wish the film’s creature matched the tone of everything else?  Sure, but even my beloved Splice had some odd story beats here and there.  If this is your kind of movie, it’s a damn solid entry into the genre and you should definitely go see it.  Hell, you’ll probably WISH you had seen it if that new Alien movie is anything like the OTHER Alien movies after the second one.

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