Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Film Review: Space sci-fi Life is as unoriginal as it is entertaining

Originality is a topic I tackle frequently in my reviews. If a film is unlike any other I've seen, like Personal Shopper or Toni Erdmann, I'll likely praise it until my last breath. If a film heads the other way, like most latter day Marvel offerings, this absence of originality will probably be the focal point of my review. We all have our own preferences as to what is most important in film making, and originality is always something that sits high up on my personal cinematic spectrum.

Because of this, Daniel Espinosa's Life puts me in a peculiar place. I won't beat around the bush here, Life is as formulaic, conventional and straight up unoriginal as film making can be. It's like if you took Aliens and Gravity and smashed them together, but took out all that makes those films special. Fortunately, it nonetheless manages to retain what makes those films good, meaning Life is essentially a well crafted film. It's just one that is clinging onto the life support offered by countless films before it.

The story is mostly where Life goes wrong. We begin with a crew of six people aboard the International Space Station, including Dr. David Gordon (Jake Gyllenhaal), Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) and pilot Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds). When a drone sent on a mission to Mars returns to them, they analyse the soil and discover a single celled organism. Reacting to the air around it, the organism evolves into a multi celled life form. Through various stimuli and scenarios too spoilery to divulge any real information on, the creature eventually grows into a dangerous size and turns hostile against the crew, attempting to pick them off one by one.

You can probably already see why Life is being criticized for its lack of identity. The remainder of the film - aside from a rather brilliant last minute bait-and-switch - is just as simple and conventional as the initial premise. Life makes this work, though. It wears its influences on its sleeve, a handful of shots could have been ripped right out of Gravity and the creature itself will appear very familiar to anyone who's even seen an Aliens poster, and it never tries to be any more than it is.

A lot of mainstream cinema lately is overlong, and bogged down with complications and uneasy ideas. Life avoids that pitfall. It does so in ways that hardly make for a classic - this is a film that probably won't be remembered by the time we enter June, let alone the New Year - but it's admirable in its own right. These characters are all two dimensional and devoid of personality or emotion, but this allows for a more streamlined second half.

A streamlined second half is much needed, as Life takes a frustratingly long time to get moving. The film's lack of identity is most notable in its first act, before we're allowed to have fun and be thrilled. Life spends twenty or so minutes laying out the groundwork and introducing us to its characters, but it isn't committed enough to them. It's a paradoxical flaw in some ways, and demonstrates a lack of understanding within the script. Life's first act seems set to want to dive into these characters and explore them, but that notion is dropped entirely once the creature gets loose.

As soon as Life decides what film it wants to be, it's a blast. Once the creature - named Calvin, after a school back on good old Earth - sets off on its rampage, the film succeeds in finding a good handful of tense set pieces. The first death scene creates a stunning moment of body horror with the combination of zero gravity and a whole lot of blood, the inside of a spacesuit is turned from a safe space into a claustrophobic nightmare, an external repair job turns into a deadly chase. It's hardly groundbreaking, but there are enough effectively crafted set pieces to keep the film's main body moving nicely.

Delivering all of this to us is a terrific cast, all of whom are clearly having fun with a film of this kind. Reynolds is reliably enjoyable, but also capable of pushing aside his comedic persona in the film's most tense sequences. Gyllenhaal and Ferguson carry the feature for a long while, and they both do well to transform their flat characters into likeable people; their performances are what make the film's best plot twist such a harrowing moment.

Life is unlikely to be talked about a year from now, and you're certainly not going to see it on any year-end lists. It's not the new Arrival or the new Gravity or the new Aliens, but nor does it want to be. This is a film of a deeply flawed nature, but one that rolls along effectively and makes the most out of its genre. It isn't an original piece of science fiction storytelling, and the recent influx of that kind of film is doing Life more damage than it deserves, but stick through its uneven opening and you'll be reward with a film that just wants to take you on a thrill ride through a spaceship with a killer alien. What's not to enjoy?

In A Sentence

Despite a slow start and a distinctive lack of originality, Life's strong performances and effective genre work do just enough to form a solidly crafted if deeply flawed sci-fi thriller.

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