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"LIFE"
(2017) (Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Science-Fiction: Six astronauts aboard the International Space Station discover an extraterrestrial life form, and it turns out to be quite malevolent.
PLOT:
In the near future, six astronauts aboard the International Space Station above Earth study a soil sample collected from Mars, hoping it will provide proof of extraterrestrial life. It does in the form of a large, single-celled organism. Under the watchful eye of Mission Commander Ekaterina Golovkina (OLGA DIHOVICHNAYA) and Miranda North (REBECCA FERGUSON), an observer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Hugh Derry (ARIYON BAKARE) begins experimenting on the microscopic alien, seeing if it will respond to different stimuli.

Over the course of the next three-plus weeks, the organism grows at an exponential rate and begins exhibiting intelligence and a very strong survival instinct. A lab mishap causes the organism, affectionately named "Calvin," to go dormant. When it awakens and is roughly the size of a large spider, it attacks Hugh by latching onto his gloved hand and crushing it. Astronaut Rory Adams (RYAN REYNOLDS) springs into action, tries to kill it, but Calvin escapes into the station's ventilation system.

The astronauts try to use all of their technical expertise to contain the creature and hopefully kill it, especially when their station falls into a decaying orbit. They fear the organism, which has proven it can survive in the vacuum of space, could survive re-entry and make it to the Earth's surface. Japanese astronaut Sho Murakami (HIROYUKI SANADA) has an especially big personal stake in the matter, as his wife has just given birth to their first child in Tokyo. Pilot David Jordan (JAKE GYLLENHAAL) eventually comes up with a plan to lure Calvin into one of the station's lifeboats and fly it out into deep space.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
What's the quickest way to tick off the cast and crew of "Life?" Interview them and ask them only questions about how their film compares to "Alien!" The 1979 sci-fi/horror classic has provided the template for several dozen, similarly themed flicks since, centering on a group of astronauts or space travelers stuck on a ship or a space station or a remote base with a creature or a monster or some evil, interstellar entity after them. They get picked off one by one, whittled down to just one or two. And a final, "fight or flight," "kill or be killed" confrontation ensues.

Yes, "Life" is different from "Alien" in a few key ways. Enough, in fact, to give the film a mild recommendation. But it's still basically the same flick. Had such A-listers as Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal not signed on to it and it, instead, attracted the likes of Aaron Eckhart or Kate Beckinsale, this would barely warrant a look-see in the cinemas.

But it does have Ryan and Jake, and their presence allows director Daniel Espinosa and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick license to mine some serious star wattage amid the stars. The film has a couple of fiendish surprises up its sleeve, including one early one that had me primed for a much more daring film than what we ultimately get in the second and third acts. If Espinosa and Co. had opened up the play box just a bit more, they might have had a real humdinger here.

Reynolds and Gyllenhaal are two of six astronauts stationed on the International Space Station orbiting Earth. They have the opportunity to analyze a soil sample sent from a Mars mission and discover it contains a large, single-celled organism -- the first sign of life outside of Earth. But the more scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) experiments on the new life form, the more it expands and evolves. Threatened by a lab malfunction, its survival instinct kicks in and goes on the attack. And when it escapes into the station's ventilation staff, all bets are off.

The differences with "Alien" are notable. The main characters are not blue-collar, space jockey types out only for themselves and money. They are capable scientists, genuinely thrilled by the prospect of alien life, but aware that the unknown can pose a threat. Hence the presence of Rebecca Ferguson's Miranda North, an observer from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She's there to provide medical care to the crew, but only she and the Mission Commander (Olga Dihovichnaya) know her real purpose is to put firewalls and fail-safes in place should any alien presence turn disruptive and threaten our world below.

I do wish some of the character work set up early in the film paid off in choices later on. For instance, Gyllenhaal's David is an astronaut who disdains humanity below and has opted to spend over 400 straight days in space without returning. Why should he care what happens to us? Except ... er, he does. Hiroyuki Sanada's Japanese astronaut, Sho, has missed the birth of his first child. So, shouldn't his over-eagerness to return to Earth at some point scuttle the astronauts' chances to escape? It does ... er, sort of. But that pressure point could have been exploited a lot more.

The film does do a good job at presenting the alien organism not as evil, but as a survivor. When Hugh comes to the revelation that their very existence depends on their ability to destroy it, it's kind of a sad revelation. But it's a true one that has been repeated throughout human history. It would have been nice also if the same screenwriting team behind "Zombieland" and "Deadpool" jazzed up their screenplay with some sharper, wittier dialogue. They throw in one stray "Re-Animator" reference for geek credibility. And after that ... nothing. Just standard "Move!" "Get out of there!" and "Watch out!" lines.

On a technical level, the film is quite the marvel. Most people will want to pay and see the film's opening seven-minute sequence. It's one, long, uncut pan through the space station as the astronauts attempt to use a mechanical arm to grab hold of an approaching capsule that has been knocked off course by space debris. It's made all the more impressive by the fact that all of the characters float around weightless. It's kind of "Apollo 13" times 10 in a much larger, open space environment.

Again, the set-up is almost too good. I was pretty excited. I knew I was about to swallow some formula. But I thought it was from an entirely new batch. Still, I can't deny, the pace of this film is good and there's not a dull moment in it. And is there possibility for a new franchise here? Hey, it's Hollywood. Of course there is! If it makes any money, "Life" WILL go on! I rate this first entry a 5.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed March 22, 2017 / Posted March 24, 2017


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