Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Life (2017)

Warning: while I’m not going to go into too much detail, I’ll have to include some structural spoilers; also, this one made me rather cross!

Apparently, there is life on Mars, and an international probe is hurtling towards Earth, carrying some promising samples in its belly (or wherever probes are carrying samples). The scriptwriters were probably afraid to lose the audience right at the start if not something “exciting” happens to begin with, so the probe is a bit out of control and instead of some sane manoeuvre, the crew – as played by the overqualified and desperately underused cast of Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya and Ariyon Bakare - of the international space station tasked to evaluate the samples has to catch the thing with a robot arm, which improbably works too.

The samples are worth the effort, though, for among them is an actual living alien cell. A cell that quickly grows into many cells, and then into an organism that becomes increasingly big. If you think you know where the rest of the movie is going to go, you are exactly right.

For if there is something that is inarguably true about Daniel Espinosa’s alien on a rampage movie, then it is that is has no original bone in its cinematic body. The plot goes where you expect it to go, the characters are the blandest bunch of nonentities with vague motivations you could get from these actors, the production design certainly suggests the 58 million dollars the movie supposedly cost didn’t go into creativity, and Espinosa’s direction is sort of there, but certainly not reaching any – even small – heights of suspense and excitement.

There are two elements about the script that truly stand out: firstly, it is chock full implausibilities: the crew of a small space station who will potentially work on alien biological material does not know what the final stage in a complete breach of quarantine is; a space station manned for this project has only one person actually qualified to work on the samples in its crew; on the other hand, said space station has a potent hand flame thrower; the so-called quarantine measures make no sense at all, the characters might as well just leave all doors open and invite their alien guest in; nobody ever follows procedures. And it goes on and on that way.

Which are of course all problems I’m not unaccustomed to from my SF horror movies, and willing to overlook (though a film at least trying to sell me on its world usually helps my tolerance here) but then comes in script standout problem number two. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick use the valuable brain space freed by not taking care of details to demonstrate cleverness without being actually all that clever (a tendency that already annoyed me quite a bit in their scripts for Deadpool and Zombieland). First, they pull a Psycho through killing off one of the “name” actors first (so that they can keep exactly the other two you’d expect them to keep for as long as possible), but telegraph it so much it does not feel surprising so much as expected. It certainly doesn’t help that it isn’t 1960 anymore.

Next, the film tries something so clever with a moment involving a leg you won’t have to look long on the Internet to find people who think it is a plot hole, when in actuality, it’s a character helping the creature because he’s lost it. The characterisation is so bland (probably aiming for subtle, and badly missing) the character never reads like actually losing it until he holds a speech about it. The film is much too coy about actually showing how leg met alien and why for the scene to work at all, and it’s no wonder people do misread what’s going on. It probably sounded like a clever little flourish to add, but again, the script doesn’t put the work in for this part of the plot to feel plausible at all and expects the audience to imagine stuff it doesn’t bother to show them.

The last and most annoying example of the film thinking it is clever for cleverness’s sake is, of course, the ending, when Life attempts to pull what it clearly thinks is a very bright little trick on its audience by lying about what its climax is actually about. That sort of thing can work, but a film really needs to have worked for the audience’s trust and patience up until that point, which this one certainly has not, and really only should use this sort of trick if the realization of what is actually going on in the ending will put everything that came before into a different light for the audience. To my great annoyance, Life opts for using this technique to finagle the usual horror movie bullshit ending. Most horror films save that sort of thing for a single shot pseudo-twist because that’s much less annoying than wasting the potential emotional effect of your whole climax, but then most horror films don’t think they are quite this clever when pulling this sort of crap, unlike Life.

No comments: