Space. A previously unknown life form that is both beautiful and completely unknowable. Man’s double-edged quest to understand and dominate over all existence. Life really, really should have worked, and the extent to which it fails makes it the biggest waste of potential so far of 2017, if not the single worst film overall.
Life tells the story of an international team orbiting the Earth’s atmosphere, on a mission to analyze soil samples collected from Mars. The team includes representatives from Russia, Japan, Great Britain and the United States. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) successfully revives a microscopic organism found in the samples, the first confirmed observation of extraterrestrial life. The team is ecstatic, but Derry has become obsessed to the point of disregarding routine safety procedures in order to observe the specimen more closely. The alien is named Calvin after students of Calvin Coolidge High (really), but a puzzling period of hibernation following a security lapse leads them to believe Calvin is dead. They try to wake him up through a mild electric shock, and he starts acting violently toward the crew, though it is unclear if he is acting out of instinct or emotion.
R, 103 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
Notice that the above description did not include the three biggest stars of Life: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds. This is because every single person in this movie is disposable. The question is never who is going to die next. It’s why we’re supposed to care. The plot is not entirely dissimilar from great films like Ridley Scott’s Alien that have tackled the same questions of isolation and hubris, but Scott showed us the human side of that crew so we understood their fear, even if we momentarily forgot their name or role on the ship. In Life, director Daniel Espinosa barely shows us a single moment of human connection before someone dies—and then he makes us watch the survivors cry over someone we never cared about.
That said, humans can be completely cookie-cutter in otherwise solid genre films. What matters most is atmosphere and creature design—which are two more areas Life blows it. The station is geometrically baffling, leading to more than a few puzzling moments. Rooms have no personality—fitting, perhaps, for a scientific vessel, but totally uninteresting artistically or dramatically. Prepare to have no idea what is happening when key characters meet their fate.
In Life, director Daniel Espinosa barely shows us a single moment of human connection before someone dies, then makes us watch the survivors cry over someone we never cared about.
This brings us to Calvin himself. To stretch the Alien comparison a bit further, that xenomorph was based on real fears and anxieties, namely violation of space and penetration. Everything the creature did grew out of these: The facehuggers planted eggs through a person’s mouth, the eggs hatched and burst through the ribcage, and the final form was an overgrown phallus, creeping unseen until it’s too late. Perhaps there are narrative shortcomings in Alien, but that alone is what made it a classic.
Calvin, meanwhile, looks like an octopus with a flower for a head, more reminiscent of Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors than any nightmare. There are a few references to the nature of life being to destroy and consume, which perhaps informed the hybrid creature design, but they come far too late to save this Life.
Playing this week
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
The Belko Experiment, Beauty and the Beast, Chips, Get Out, Hidden Figures, Kong: Skull Island, The Lego Batman Movie, Logan, Power Rangers, The Shack
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
Beauty and the Beast, Get Out, Kong: Skull Island, The Last Word, Logan, Power Rangers