Saturday, March 25, 2017

Life (2017)

3/4

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ryan Reynolds, Olga Dihovichnaya, Arlyon Bakare

Rated R for Language Throughout, and Some Sci-Fi Violence and Terror

Not to be confused with the 1999 dramedy with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence

In some ways, the new horror/thriller "Life" is some kind of miracle.  It's not a sequel/remake/reboot/whatever, no one has any superpowers (therefore sparing us from another Stan Lee cameo), and it's not based on a book or TV show.  The only thing the director and actors had to go on was the screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.  That adds an element of freshness to it, since it's not bound by crossing every t and dotting every i from the source material and is free from fan mania.  That it's actually good only makes it all the sweeter.

"Life" is a good, but not great, sci-fi horror film.  It's too long and lacks the sheer terror of its closest cousin (and probable inspiration), "Alien."  Critics have been calling this a "rip-off" of the 1979 classic, but it's an unfair accusation.  On paper they're similar, but director Daniel Espinoza does enough to distinguish his film that it can stand on its own.  Still, lovers of Ridley Scott's shocker will find a lot to appreciate here.

A shuttle bringing back samples from Mars has just arrived at the ISS.  While researching, the international team of astronauts/scientists discovers a single celled organism.  With a little experimentation, they bring it out of hibernation.  Dubbed "Calvin" by the public, the organism evolves rapidly.  Soon it becomes very aware to the six scientists that our first encounter is not a peaceful one, as Calvin shows surprising strength and aggression.  Now, in order to stay alive, Dr. David (Gyllenhaal), Miranda (Ferguson), Sho (Sanada), Kat (Dihovichnaya), Rory (Reynolds) and Hugh (Bakare) must find a way to kill Calvin before he kills them.  Or worse, makes it to Earth.

The cast, made up of two big stars, two character actors and two unknowns, is surprisingly strong for a horror movie.  No one is better or worse than the others, and that's how it should be.  Jake Gyllenhaal is suitably heroic, Rebecca Ferguson is smart and a quick thinker, Hiroyuki Sanada (who gets far too few roles on this side of the Pacific) is the most relaxed I've seen him (ironically), Ryan Reynolds dials down his smart-ass persona to be more grounded and real, Olga Dihovichnaya is a good leader, and Arlyon Bakare is bookish without being too nerdy.  For about 99% of the running time, it's just the six of them on screen.  Plus Calvin.

Speaking of Calvin, he's one of the film's drawbacks.  He's just not that scary to look at.  Especially when compared to the Xenomorph.  Calvin, who looks like a cross between a headless squid and a cheerleader's pom pom, is acceptably villainous, but that's mostly because of his actions.  Calvin is as smart as he is aggressive.

Daniel Espinoza, famous for his gritty, violent thrillers like "Safe House" (he also directed "Child 44," but the less said about that movie, the better), might seem like an odd choice to direct this sci-fi horror flick.  But he does a solid job, ratcheting up the tension to acceptable levels and pulling off a few decent shocks.  My biggest complaint is the ending.  Without going into detail, I will say that it's a twist ending that's cliché and unnecessary.  That it's set up well soothes the wound, but it's been done so many times that it feels more obligatory than shocking.

It's not a perfect movie, but for those who are hungering for some terror in the depths of space (or orbit), this will do the trick.

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