Sunday, April 16, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Life

Life was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and directed by Daniel Espinosa

Reese and Wernick are working partners with very checkered careers. In addition to working on several TV series and reality shows, they previously wrote Clifford's Really Big Movie (!), Zombieland, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Deadpool (!!!).

Espinosa previously directed Babylonsjukan (?), Outside Love, Easy Money, Safe House and Child 44. Of those, the only one I've ever heard of is Safe House, which coincidentally also starred Ryan Reynolds.

When Ridley Scott's ALIEN premiered in 1979, many critics called it "A B-movie with an A-movie cast and budget." They weren't wrong. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you! It was interesting to see such a cliched and schlock concept like "People Trapped Inside Spaceship With Alien Monster" given such red carpet treatment.

Well, here we are in 2017 and history's repeating itself all over again. Life is most definitely a B-Movie with an A-Movie cast and budget. It's a modern day remake of ALIEN, which was a remake of It: The Terror From Beyond Space!, which was probably a remake of an even earlier film. 

Life follows ALIEN's template beat for beat, going so far as to recreate entire scenes, right down to the stage directions! Life definitely looks great, and features a cast of top-notch performers, but it's all in service of a derivative and highly predictable script.

Heck, even the poster does its best to ape ALIEN, what with the dark background, the circular central element and even the wide-spaced typography!

Life isn't content just to copy from ALIEN. It also cribs scenes wholesale from Gravity, along with elements from The Martian and even Avatar! It just can't help itself!

Say... an expensive, unoriginal and disappointing sci-fi film that was dumped into theaters near the beginning of the year... You don't suppose... Could it be? What studio produced this fiasco anyway?

Oh dear... 

"Dere's yer problem right there, lady! You gotcha self a Sony pitcher on yer hands!"

HA! I knew it! Life is brought to us by the fine people at Sony, the gold standard of movie studios (and my former employers!). Why, in just the past three years, Sony's produced such wonderful films as:

The Monuments Men • Robocop (2014)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 • 22 Jump Street • Think Like A Man Too
Sex Tape • The Equalizer • Fury • The Interview • Chappie
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 • Aloha • Pixels • Ricki and the Flash 
Hotel Transylvania 2 • The Walk • Goosebumps • Freaks of Nature 
Spectre • The Night Before • The 5th Wave • The Brothers Grimsby
Money Monster • Angry Birds • The Shallows • Ghostbusters 2016
Sausage Party • The Magnificent Seven • Inferno • Passengers
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter • Underworld: Blood Wars

With a track record like that, Sony's Life couldn't possibly be anything but a hit, right? Right?

Life's startling similarity to ALIEN even affected its release date! Life was originally scheduled to slither into theaters this coming Memorial Day weekend, but it was moved up to March at the last minute. Why? No doubt to avoid competition with ALIEN: Covenant,  Ridley Scott's latest remake of ALIEN, er, I mean prequel to ALIEN, which also comes out in May.

Sony obviously didn't want the two films in theaters at the same time, since they're basically the same goddamned movie.

Also, I'm assuming the trailer means "Memorial Day WEEKEND," as Memorial Day is always on a Monday, and it seems unlikely a film would premiere at the beginning of the week.

By the way, if you insist on seeing this film despite my warnings, do yourself a favor and DO NOT watch the trailer beforehand. It is literally a two minute version of the film, spelling out every single plot point except for the ending (although it actually includes a couple quick shots from the final scene!). 

Unfortunately for my former employers, Life looks to be DOA at the box office. After four weeks it's only managed to gross an anemic $28 million against its modest $58 million budget. It's done a bit better overseas, where it raked in $39 million, for a worldwide total of $68 million. Movies these days need to gross about twice their production budget just to break even though, so it looks like Life's a flop.

Sorry, Sony, but that's Life! Get it? That's "life?" Eh? EH?


The Plot:
It's the year 2017, and six astronauts are manning the International Space Station. The crew consists of Dr. David Jordan (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who's the Senior Medical Officer, Dr. Miranda North, the Quarantine Officer, Rory Adams (played by Ryan Reynolds), the engineer, Sho Kendo, the pilot of the station (um... a space station needs a pilot?), Hugh Derry, a biologist and Katerina Golovkina, the Mission Commander.

As the film opens, the crew's preparing to capture a space probe returning from Mars, in one long, continuous and impressive shot that I'm sure wasn't meant to remind us of Gravity. Rory uses the station's robotic arm to capture the approaching probe and bring it inside. The probe contains a Martian soil sample, which Hugh immediately begins examining. He soon discovers the sample contains a single celled alien organism. It's humanity's first ever confirmation of life on another planet.

Hugh begins playing around with the seemingly dead cell, adjusting the atmosphere inside its sealed chamber and flooding it with an organic growth medium (bad idea). Amazingly, he manages to revive the long-dormant cell (uh-oh). It quickly begins growing into a multi-celled organism, and even responds to stimuli. (not good). Hugh notes that the organism's cells can act as muscle, brain and eye tissue, all at the same time (definitely bad).

The public is informed of the discovery, and a contest is held to name the new life form. A young girl wins the contest and names it Calvin, after her school, Calvin Coolidge Elementary.

Calvin begins growing at an alarming rate (oh, no), as the organism now resembles a translucent starfish. Unfortunately Hugh forgets to close a valve or something, and all the oxygen is vented from the lab, seemingly killing Calvin (good!). Hugh attempts to revive him by administering mild electric shocks with a probe (why?). Calvin is brought back to life, and Hugh continues playing around with him inside his sealed chamber.

Suddenly Calvin wraps himself around Hugh's hand and grips it tightly. Hugh tries to slip his hand out of the quarantine glove built into the side of the chamber, but Calvin won't let go. He eventually crushes the bones in Hugh's hand (in one of the film's most gruesome scenes), allowing him to slip free of the glove.

Amazingly, Calvin then picks up a sharp probe and uses it as a knife to cut through the glove and escape the sealed chamber. That is one smart starfish! He zips over to a table and absorbs a lab rat inside a cage (holy crap!), and then disappears somewhere in the room.

Rory wants to enter the lab and rescue the now unconscious Hugh, but Miranda, who's the Quarantine Office, forbids it, fearing Calvin will escape into the ship. Rory ignores her and enters the room anyway, because he's an idiot and the plot needs to happen
. He manages to push Hugh out of the lab, but before he can exit, Calvin latches onto his leg. David seals the lab, locking Rory inside. Rory attacks Calvin with a small flame thrower, but the creature's evidently immune to fire. Calvin slowly slithers up Rory's body, squeezes into his mouth, and kills him from the inside. I guess they couldn't afford Ryan Reynolds for the whole movie?

The flame thrower causes the fire suppression system to activate. Calvin then emerges from Rory's mouth and escapes through the suppression vents, meaning he's now loose on the ship. Katerina sends out an SOS to Earth.

The script continues to check off items on its list of shipboard calamities, as the communication system suddenly goes down, meaning the crew can no longer contact Earth. Whether this was a random occurrence or caused by Calvin is left to our imaginations. Katerina suits up and exits the station to try and fix the antenna. For some reason, Calvin exits the station as well and attacks Katerina in space, wrapping himself around her and squeezing hard. He ruptures her suit's coolant system, which causes liquid to leak into her suit as she becomes the first person to ever drown in outer space!

Calvin then attempts to re-enter the station through its thrusters. Sho activates the rockets, which keep the creature from getting back in. Unfortunately all this thruster-using knocks the ISS into a decaying orbit, meaning it'll burn up in Earth's atmosphere. Sho says their only hope is to use their remaining fuel to restore their orbit, but once that's done Calvin will be able to get back inside.

The crew comes up with a plan to seal themselves into their futuristic sleep chambers and vent the air from the station, which will cause Calvin to become dormant again. Suddenly Hugh enters cardiac arrest, as David uses a defibrillator (the wrong way, of course) to save him. They then see his uniform is pulsating, and realize Calvin's wrapped himself around Hugh's leg and has been secretly feeding on him. He leaps off of Hugh and attacks the crew.

Sho flies through the ship and seals himself in his sleep chamber. Calvin violently tries to break through the glass. David and Miranda lure Calvin away from Sho with Hugh's blood, and trap it inside one of the station's modules. They vent the oxygen from the module to hopefully kill Calvin.

Earth apparently received Katerina's SOS, and sends a Soyuz capsule to the station. This is of course impossible for a numnber of reasons, but let's just move on or we'll be here all day. David assumes the capsule is there to rescue them, but Miranda says it's a final quarantine precaution— it's actually there to shove the station out into deep space, thereby protecting Earth.

The capsule just happens to dock with the module in which Calvin is trapped (of course). Sho exits his chamber and rushes to the module, trying to get into the capsule. He opens the hatch and Calvin kills both him and the Soyuz crew. The capsule then detaches and spins wildly, destroying part of the station.

Damaged beyond repair, the station begins plummeting toward Earth. David realizes that Calvin could possibly survive re-entry and destroy all life on the planet. He comes up with a final, desperate plan. He'll lure Calvin into one of the two escape pods, then fly it off into deep space, while Miranda uses the other pod to return to Earth.

David successfully lures Calvin into his escape pod and blasts off, while Miranda launches hers. Miranda's pod is struck by debris from the station and spins off course. David struggles to control his pod, as Calvin grips the joystick and tries to alter course. The two pods divert and go their separate ways.

Back on Earth, two Asian fisherman see a pod land in the ocean. They paddle over to it and peer into the pod's window. Inside they see David, almost completely covered by Calvin's now giant body, warning. He frantically warns them not to open the capsule, but they don't understand. As the camera pulls back, we see more boats sailing toward the downed capsule. Cut to Miranda shrieking inside her pod as it spins helplessly into deep space.

• There seems to be great confusion as to just when this film takes place. Many people online are convinced it's set fifteen to thirty years from now. It most certainly is not.

One glance at the beginning of the trailer is all you need to prove that Life takes place here and now in good ol' 2017.

If you're still not convinced, there's further evidence in the film. At one point David says he remembers seeing the Challenger disaster on TV as a child, and how his school sent all the students home afterwards.

The Challenger exploded in 1986. That was thirty one years ago. If David was in first grade (six years old) when it happened, that would make him thirty seven in 2017. Since David looks like he's thirty seven, that means the movie has to take place in the present day.

I suppose you could argue that David's a young-looking forty and the movie takes place in 2020, but because of his Challenger story it can't possibly take place any later than that.

• I can understand the confusion over the film's time period though. Life apparently takes place in a parallel dimension in which space technology is much more advanced than it is in our world. The International Space Station seen in Life is nothing like the one we have now.

Here's the real ISS. See those white tubes in the center? Those are the habitable parts! Not a lot of living space in there. Ninety percent of it appears to be solar panels!

Here's the ISS that appears in the film. Yeah, that's definitely a movie space station.

Everything about this movie ISS is futuristic, and looks like it was designed by a special effects crew. For example, this control room is very cinematic, and much more advanced than the real thing.

Same goes for these very roomy and design-y sci-fi corridors the crew floats around in.

And then there's this! There is no way in hell the real 2017 ISS features a room full of ALIEN-esque sleeping pods!

And I'm for goddamned sure there's no gigantic window like this one anywhere on the real ISS. Space is full of radiation and cosmic rays, guys. Typically the designers of outer space habitats tend to want to minimize the windows, not build gigantic twenty foot wide viewing walls like this.

• The film begins with what appears to be one continuous five minute long shot. That seems to be the new trend in "realistic" space films like Gravity and The Martian. I'm not really sure why this happens. Is a continuous shot with 360 degree movement supposed to trick our minds into thinking the actors are in a real environment, not a set?

• Speaking of Gravity, the filmmakers are seemingly in love with it almost as much as they are with ALIEN, as there are numerous nods to it as well.

In addition to the continuous opening shot, the ISS astronauts fly around the interior of the weightless station, just like Sandra Bullock did in Gravity. There's also a lengthy space walk sequence in Life that's very reminiscent of the ones in Gravity as well.

And of course Life features a space capsule colliding with the ISS, just like in Gravity. Seriously, it looks like they took footage from Gravity and just spliced it directly into this film! It's shockingly identical.

• I wasn't kidding when I said Life is basically a remake of ALIEN. In addition to lifting the entire plot from that earlier film, it recreates entire scenes, right down to the dialogue and set direction!

For example, early in the film, Hugh locks himself in the lab and examines Calvin. Unfortunately Calvin attacks Hugh, seriously wounding him. When Rory sees this, he immediately tries to open the lab and rescue Hugh. Miranda, the station's Quarantine Officer, forbids it. Rory ignores her and enters the lab anyway, which leads to Calvin's escape.

This entire scene is lifted practically word for word from ALIEN. When Dallas and Lambert bring the injured Kane (who has a face hugger attached to his head) back to the Nostromo, Ripley refuses to let them back in. The crew members argue back and forth for a bit, until Ash overrides Ripley and lets them in.

Later on David's floating through a cramped corridor on the ISS, as the alien Calvin zips past the camera in the foreground. The exact same scene, right down to the blocking, happens in ALIEN, when Dallas is trying to flush the xenomorph from the air ducts.

And at one point one of the crew members is standing in the foreground, as Calvin drops out of an overhead vent, then slowly rises up behind them. Again, this is a precise reenactment of a scene in ALIEN.

About the only thing missing from Life was a pet cat and a crew member who was secretly an android!

Life was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who also wrote Deadpool. It features Ryan Reynolds (well for a little while at least), who was of course the star of Deadpool

It should be noted that Reynolds is pretty much playing Deadpool here (minus the facial scars and red suit), as he spends every second of his screen time tossing out quips and sarcastic remarks. 

And by "playing Deadpool" I really mean "playing himself." Reynolds is fast becoming the new Jack Nicholson or Liam Neeson, playing the same character— i.e himself— in every film he's in.

By the way, Reynold's was originally cast as David, the main character (or the closest thing to one in the film). Scheduling conflicts with the upcoming The Hitman's Bodyguard forced him to take the role of Rory instead, so he could bow out of the movie early.

 This is the second time Hiroyuki Sanada plays an astronaut in a sci-fi film. He played Kaneda in 2007's Sunshine.

• Credit where credits's due
 there's exactly one clever idea in this film. Hugh, the ISS' resident biologist, is paralyzed from the waist down, and has shriveled little legs just like Jake Sully in Avatar (hey, yet another influence!).

This isn't a problem for Hugh in the weightless environment of outer space though, as he doesn't need legs to float and fly around the station. In fact he's probably more agile than the unafflicted members of the crew. Hugh even comments that he's never felt as free as he does inside the confines of the ISS. Well done, writers!

• Speaking of zero-G, the weightless effects in Life are all very well done, as the actors look like they're effortlessly floating around the station. They even realistically push themselves off of walls and fly from compartment to compartment.

Eh, with one big exception. There's a scene in which the entire cast is gathered around a large table. I dunno why they're all there, as they don't appear to be eating or discussing anything. I guess they're just supposed to be hanging out. 

Anyway, the cast all "floats" as they huddle around this table. Unfortunately it's patently obvious that no one's on wires or anything in this scene, and the director just told them all to bob up and down slightly in a flailing effort to simulate weightlessness (!). It looks about as convincing as you'd imagine something like that would.

• One last thing about weightlessness before I shut up about it. Wondering why all the women in the movie have short hair, or constantly have it pulled back into a bun? Because short and/or restrained hair doesn't move around! If the women all had long, flowing hairstyles, the effects team would have had to simulate it floating in zero-G!

• More credit where it's due the Calvin effects were all completely realistic and absolutely believable. I'm sure it's not easy creating a convincing translucent CGI creature.

Not so much the case with Calvin's later iteration, which looked very much the wadded-up Kleenexes my mom would always stuff into her sleeve.

The best part of Calvin's alien starfish look was that he had no discernible head or face. This was unsettling and very effective, as you're never quite sure whether he can actually see or is sensing his prey some other way. This lends an eerie, alien quality to Calvin. 

Unfortunately, in the third act Calvin starts to develop a rudimentary head. I can't find any photos of it online, but this head looks at best like an artichoke heart, and at worst like an angry cabbage. They should have left well enough alone.

• Apparently Calvin thrives on oxygen, and craves it so much David can even use it to lure him into an escape pod.

But why? Calvin came from Mars, right? So how much oxygen is there in the thin atmosphere of the Red Planet? According to Google, the answer's 0.1%. That doesn't sound like much. It certainly doesn't sound like enough to cause Calvin to develop a taste for it.

• At one point Hugh comments that Mars is a dead and barren world because a whole herd of Calvins decimated all life there. So were the Calvins native to Mars then? Doubtful, as they'd likely have destroyed any life before it had the chance to evolve. It's more likely that a single Calvin cell hitched a ride on a meteorite that landed on Mars. It then consumed all life there and became dormant when there was nothing left to eat.

• Just how smart is Calvin? Seconds after he escapes from the lab, the ISS' communication system goes down. Obviously the filmmakers want us to believe Calvin sabotaged it, but that seems like a stretch. He's a translucent starfish who's never encountered humanity or our technology before. Could he really figure out the concept of electronic communication and how to disable it in just a few minutes?

• After Rory's killed and Calvin escapes into the ship, Katerina sends out a distress call to Earth. Seemingly just a few hours later, a Soyuz capsule arrives at the station.

Yeah, no. That's scientifically impossible. Real space travel takes lots of time, and depends on all sorts of complicated conditions like launch windows, orbital planes and such. Even if you've got a rocket all furled and ready to go, you can't just blast off into space whenever you feel like it.

• When Hugh goes into cardiac arrest, David uses a futuristic defibrillator on him. Of course the way he uses it is completely wrong, just like every scene involving a defib machine in every movie ever made.

This is an old, old song here at Bob Canada's BlogWorld, but once more with feeling the human heart is not a car battery, and a defib machine is not a pair of jumper cables! You can't shock a non-beating heart back to life!

Some day before I die, I'd like to see a defibrillator used the right way in a movie.

• I'm VERY impressed that the filmmakers went with such a bleak, downer of an ending. You don't often see that in the cineplex in this day and age.

Although the final scene indicates it's all over for us here on Earth, I wonder if that's really true? Maybe Calvin will be undone by our microbes, ala the Martians in The War Of The Worlds?

Life is well made, well acted and looks incredible, but it's all in service of a derivative, unoriginal script, as it steals the entire plot (and even whole scenes) directly from ALIEN, which drags down the final score by an entire letter grade. It features a welcome and shocking downer of an ending, but one scene does not a good movie make. Do yourself a favor and rewatch ALIEN instead. I give it a C+.

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