Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 24, 2017 7:03 pm 
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"Life" shows a picture need not be brilliant or original to shake you to the core

This work from Chilean-descent Swedish director Daniel Espinosa is not to be confused with the 2015 Dane DeHaan vehicle of the same name, directed by Anton Corbijn and costarring Robert Pattinson, which concerned the Life magazine photographer who memorably hung out with and snapped James Dean only seven months before he died. This one isn't really as good as that one, but it packs a bigger wallop.

The very word "life" in Espinosa's new sci-fi recension has an ironic shimmer to it when we remember back to the hopeful aura it had in the opening scenes as we get to the violent ones, or after it's all over, when we drag ourselves limply from the theater. Life, the essence of biological existence, becomes something horrific in this scary and depressing movie. It's a familiar sci-fi outcome, but this movie makes it feel vivid and fresh. Don't let the mixed reviews deter you: however conventional it is in its outlines, this will shake you to the core.

A six-person international space mission crew (destined to dwindle rapidly) has gathered "soil" from Mars that, on board, sprouts tiny sprigs of what appear clearly to be biomorphic potential, apparently dormant because the planet Mars didn't provide it with the wherewithal of development. Though some of them are conditioned to be cautious and skeptical, the crew is thrilled and charmed by what they've got on board to gingerly study. Following a hint from a middle school student interviewed in Times Square, they name the plant-like tiny critter "Calvin."

It's been accurately said that Life is "a B movie on an A budget" (Dowd, AV Club) - and "with an A-List cast" (Mottram, South China Morning Post . This film is as crude and simple as a Fifties sci-fi thriller. Not only the writing but the direction fall short. The action and the storyline are so muddled at times. But this is no tin can homemade set. It's very complicated looking, and the cast members float around inside with gravity-free realism. And they include Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, with Ariyon Bakare touching as the team biologist who falls in love with Calvin and is his first victim, and Rebecca Ferguson appealing as Jake's soul mate and final partner.

The star of the show though, is the ever-growing Calvin, the sprout that becomes a menacing transparent octopus-like thingy that is most original in its early stages, before it morphs into the giant tendril-brandishing insect we know all too well. (But at all times it's top-drawer CGI and hypnotically fascinating to watch.)

The scariest part: the dwindling team is shut up in the space ship with an increasingly menacing beast whose strength and resistance and instinct to devour are evident even when it's barely the size of a man's hand. They cannot escape Calvin's relentless rampage, and the only hope becomes that they will not bring it back to earth. But achievement of that hope becomes doubtful in the dark finale.

A lot of the dialogue sounds a bit fuzzy even sitting up close and with few exceptions, notably Gyllenhaal's, cast members are only sketchily developed. Explanations of strategies are hasty at best, losing crucial opportunities to engage us intellectually and create suspense. But the action is kept fast and tense once Calvin's menace becomes clear. This is a visceral movie. The fact that the crew members are floating around helps to make them seem vulnerable: the Alien theme cones with an awareness of the visual and kinetic power of Iñárritu's Gravitiy, with DP Seamus McGarvey the catalyst this time. Both intimate and threatening in its effect, the camera is up close on their faces much of the time, floating freely in a dizzying world where we never know up from down. Everything is coming at us all the time, and the score by Jon Ekstrand, intense but not as obtrusive-seeming in the crowded space station as in Gravity's empty space, effectively tells us what to feel or how much to stay focused at every point. Considering that the writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have Zombieland in their portfolio this movie is light on the comic relief, but we get no ime to worry about that shortcoming once the action heats up.

Life, 103 mins., debuted at SxSW 18 Mar 2017., opening wide in theaters 24 Mar. . Metacritic rating 55%.

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