1 hour, 44 minutes
I’ve gotten into several arguments lately with my cinephile friends about the value of originality.
On the one hand, as was pointed out, originality is kind of a misnomer, since nearly every story falls back into a handful of well-worn tropes that have been dominating narratives since the beginning of time. The hero’s journey. The terror in the dark. The wounded lover, etc. It’s all been done before.
So the argument there is, if the movie entertaining, who cares if it’s original?
On the other hand, what about variety, creativity, the artist’s vision, and all that? As was pointed out by my friend, “I like lobster. I don’t want to have lobster every night.” Fair point as well.
This is his argument against the Marvel cinematic universe, however, so I can only follow him down the path so far. I don’t care if all those films seem like they were churned out of the same factory — they are superbly entertaining, and meticulously created by people with a love for the subject matter. And, they are supposed to feel like they are all part of a whole, so bring ‘em on.
I bring all this up because this week’s movie, the sci-fi thriller “Life,” is a pretty obvious knock off of 1979’s classic “Alien.” I like “Alien” a lot, and I actually liked “Life.” I told this to a fellow critic friend of mine, who vehemently disagreed with my assessment, and his response was, “If you like ‘Alien’ so much, why don’t you just watch ‘Alien!’”
OK. Fair points all around.
That said, for a simple, solid sci-fi thriller, you could do a lot worse than “Life.” The film stars Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rebecca Ferguson, among others, as astronauts on the International Space Station on a mission to retrieve a probe returning from Mars. It will be the first such object to ever come back from the surface of the red planet, and the hope is that there will be a discovery of organic materials in the soil samples it carries. Naturally, there is organic material, and naturally things go horribly awry.
Whenever I watch a film like this, I want to yell at the screen, “Haven’t you ever seen a science fiction movie?” Maybe I should be yelling “Haven’t you ever seen ‘Alien?!’”
As the monster gets loose and begins to pick off the crew one by one, the question becomes less about how to survive and more about how to make sure it doesn’t get to Earth.
While there is very little about “Life” that is surprising or particularly noteworthy, neither is there anything particularly wrong with it. I guess that’s the definition of a solid, middle of the road picture. Ryan Reynolds does a perfectly serviceable job as the jokey astronaut, and Rebecca Ferguson, who you may remember as the best part of the last “Mission Impossible” movie, does a perfectly serviceable job as the serious scientist.
The rest of the cast does a fine job as well, with the possible exception of Gyllenhaal, who does seem to be phoning it in. It’s not a bad performance so much as it is a disinterested one. Maybe he would have rather been watching “Alien” as well.
The effects in “Life” work about as well as the rest of it. There are a lot of repetitive shots of people hurriedly floating from one cramped compartment to another, but there are also some good “Gravity” style scenes outside the space station, and a few harrowing scenes of destruction.
The creature itstelf, starting out as a single-cell and multiplying rapidly into an organism that is “all brain, all muscle, all eye!” is interesting enough. It kind of looks like a cross between a sea plant and a starfish. I will say, it was scarier before the effects people decided it needed a face. Things do start to get a little goofy at that point.
“Life” is one of those movies that I’m happy that I watched and that I will rapidly forget about. I’ll happen upon it in a year or two on Netflix and think, “Oh yeah, that’s that movie that reminded me of ‘Alien.’” I’ll sit and watch it, and enjoy it, and promptly forget it again.
Is that a great recommendation for a great life changing film? No. But maybe you don’t always want that. Maybe you don’t want lobster for dinner every night. Maybe sometimes you want a good grilled cheese sandwich. That’s what “Life” is. If you want life changing, go watch “Alien.”
“Life” is rated R for language and creature violence.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.