At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Life “2017”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Life “2017”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Sci-Fi Horror/Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya, Naoko Mori/Runtime: 104 minutes

Can I just say dear reader that I for one am hoping that should (operative word there) the day ever come when our tiny blue and green celestial ball in the universe finds itself making contact with organisms from another planet that it is an encounter that goes at the very least somewhat peacefully? I mean the reason I ask is because, ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind notwithstanding, it really doesn’t seem like humanity as a whole is really all that optimistic from a cinematic perspective about such an encounter really going all that well for us. Indeed, when you look at everything from the Alien and Predator franchises all the way to 1982’s The Thing and Independence Day (and yes I guess you could maybe say Independence Day: Resurrection, but hopefully not in the same breath), it really does look like the general consensus seems to be “oh we’ll definitely get visitors from another planet, but by no means is this going to end well. In fact, expect at least 5 people to lose their lives and badly at that”. The reason I bring this up dear reader is because I don’t think it’s too much a spoiler to reveal that the slice of cinema I am reviewing for you today, 2017’s Life is definitely a film in the latter cinematic camp I have brought up to you. Yet at the same time, there is also something a tad bit curious about this slice of cinema. That curious thing being that this film is very much aware of the kind of movie that it desperately would love to be. As a result, it’s downright stunning opening of a probe from Mars hurtling through the cosmos whilst being rained on by meteors manages to conjure up the silent allure yet consistent peril of numerous films made before and even after this one came out. On the other hand, we see that the extremely confined and cramped setting will quickly remind you of the Nostromo from 1979’s Alien, the plot engages in a bit of the plot from Gravity near the end, and both the banter between the cast of characters as well as its utilization of science lingo does bring to mind 2015’s The Martian to name but a few examples. In other words: if your iconic movie can best be described as “things going wrong in outer space” then I’m sure that it had some level of influence on this film. The issue with brushing up against slices of cinema that are viewed as highly as those aforementioned ones are is the fact that the moment you make the choice to do this your movie will be compared, as unfair as that may be, to them. As a result, your movie quickly finds that if you want even a chance to work it needs to also be able to be its own thing instead of merely a cut and paste job. It is in that respect therefore that this slice of cinema falters since it is unable to accomplish this. With that in mind though, that doesn’t mean this film is an outright failure. Far from it actually. No, this film might not be genuinely excellent or instantly iconic, but the work done by the cast, a fairly cohesive narrative, some well-done work visual effects work, and a truly refreshing brutally bleak streak about the proceedings do help to make this one that might not be great, but it is most assuredly engaging.

The plot is as follows: Taking place in a possible near future, our slice of cinema rivetingly gets underway as we witness firsthand as an unmanned space probe that has been on the surface of Mars begins to make its way back to Earth’s orbit. Yet rather than making landfall on Earth, this probe is instead picked up by the 6-person crew on board the International Space Station for further analysis. A crew consisting of medical officer David Jordan, engineer Rory Adams, CDC quarantine official Miranda North, systems engineer Sho Murakami, exobiologist Hugh Derry, and Mission Commander Kat Golovkina respectively. We soon, along with the crew, discover something quite startling about the samples that this probe has managed to retrieve. Namely that it manages to contain what could quite possibly be game-changing evidence of life beyond our planet (or extraterrestrial life for those who like things short and sweet). Even more remarkable than that however is the fact that apparently there’s more than just proof in these samples. Rather, there is also a hibernating cell among them that is soon revived and christened with the name of “Calvin” by no less an entity than America’s school children (kids do say the darnedest things from time to time). Unfortunately, there’s just one teeny tiny little problem. Namely that Calvin has started to grow at an exponential rate, is acquiring intelligence just as quickly, and really doesn’t seem all that interested in being friends with the organisms that found him and woke him from his hibernated status. A problem that makes itself apparent when it (surprise surprise) decides to make a meal of a lab rat onboard and then sets its ravenous and hostile appetite towards the crew themselves. Thus, it is up to our crew of intrepid scientists/researchers who are literally stuck on the ISS with this creature to try and figure out a way to annihilate it before it manages to wipe them all out and then proceed to find a way to get loose on and subsequently terrorize our lovely little planet…..

Now right off the bat, I guess I should point out the big issue that this slice of cinema is saddled with so then I can go into some of the things behind the camera that I happened to appreciate. With that in mind, the main issue that I have with this slice of cinema is the fact that it is not so much the fact that it is very much familiar with the slices of cinema that it holds in high regard and is trying to resemble. Rather, it is the fact that it desperately wants to be seen in the same light as its cinematic influences….despite the fact that it most assuredly is nowhere close to those films’ level of quality. Indeed this is fairly crystal clear right from the very first shot on the ISS as we see that film helmer Daniel Espinosa gets things underway with a lengthy singular camera shot that takes us as movie goers on a tour of the space station whilst also serving as our introduction to our cast of characters and also allows us to witness their incredible retrieval of the probe that sets the rest of the film in motion. Yet despite being very much an exercise in style, this is also a helmer choice that gives off the vibe of being excessive at best and over the top at worst. This is because, unlike Alien, which makes its ship setting give off the vibe of feeling just as (for lack of the better word) alien to the crew as the titular creature thus raising the suspense at least ten-fold, this film doesn’t feel all that suspenseful because we are permitted to become way too familiar with the layout of this ship than we ought to be. Should you be able to get past the beginning and at least one death scene where it is too messy to be able to keep you on the edge of your seat however, there is no denying that the creative crew behind the camera actually doesn’t do that bad of a job here. For starters, we see that with the aid of the cinematography department, this film is able to conjure up some truly polished visuals from a gamut of colors that could best be described as “musty and authentic”. This fairly good visual wok also extends to the alien entity as well since, despite obviously being CG, it is blended into both the environment and alongside the cast so well that, unlike other extraterrestrial entities in cinema, this one doesn’t have to stay in the shadows to raise your heart rate and grip your seat that much harder. Yet, although this slice of cinema might want you to think it has intelligence to spare, you should know that this really is nothing more than cinema’s latest edition of “Guess Who’s Going to Die in Space Today?” Yet, while there is no denying that it might not have the intelligence quotient it wants, this slice of cinema does have something that makes up for that a little bit. Namely a wonderfully brutal and bleak streak to it that is genuinely refreshing in light of all the films that choose to play things safe nowadays. Indeed, perhaps the moment that best showcases this bleakness is the scene where the alien decides to take a trip down a character’s throat and in the process turns their insides into an all an extraterrestrial can eat buffet. No we might not see a lot in terms of viscerality or gore, but truthfully this slice of cinema ingeniously remembers that sometimes what’s scarier isn’t what is seen. Rather, it’s what is heard or even not seen for that matter that can more effectively send a chill down the spine or a jolt of fear in the heart. Suffice it to say that yes, this slice of cinema does try a bit too hard behind the camera to be on the same level as the films it idolizes, but there is a fair bit back there that is more than respectable in its own right.

Of course, the other big element to this film working on the level that it ultimately is able to would have to be the work done by the genuinely talented cast assembled in front of the camera.  Yes, the cast are all playing (to an extent) archetypes thus making it way easier than it should be to figure out just where this slice of cinema’s narrative plans on taking them, but they are so capably portrayed that the work done by the cast in bringing their respective characters to life almost manages to make up for that shortcoming. Almost being the key word there dear reader incidentally. This starts with the always terrific Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr. David Jordan and I must confess that this by no means a revelatory turn from this immensely gifted thespian. Having said that though, I will say that Gyllenhaal still nevertheless does a great job at providing this a wee bit on the cold and stoic side character with a necessary degree of relatability that helps make it easier to root for him when he engages in battle against Calvin alongside the rest of the crew. Alongside Gyllenhaal, I also think praise should be given to the work done here by the always delightful Ryan Reynolds as Rory Adams. Yes, there is a wee bit of the trademark Ryan Reynolds snark on display with this character, but otherwise Reynolds does a great job at knowing when to ease off on it and play this character straight which this situation definitely calls for. That and, without going into spoilers, I will say that in a twisted manner I definitely enjoy where this slice of cinema takes Reynolds’ character even if it might be hard to stomach for some people. Even with that in mind however, there is no denying that it is a fairly good performance from an actor who, brilliant comedic chops aside, is also a genuinely great talent when given the right material. Rounding out the trio of main performers in this cast is the always enjoyable Rebecca Ferguson in the role of Dr. Miranda North. Indeed, ever since her breakout role in 2015’s 5th Mission Impossible installment, Ferguson has quickly become regarded for playing characters that are either a bit on the enigmatic side, have a bit of a chilly exterior, but on the inside are just as human as the rest of us, or just straight up ice-cold antagonists who you love to hate with a passion. Perhaps this is why she is just as good as Ilsa Faust as she was at playing the character of Rose the Hat in 2019’s Doctor Sleep adaptation. Suffice it to say that she also does good work here as well. Yes, the character of Miranda North is one that doesn’t get a whole lot in the way of depth, but Ferguson still takes what limited material she has been given here and makes it work in the way that an actress of her caliber is able to do so well. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in good work from the always reliable Hiroyuki Sanada as well as from the fairly unknown to (at least) the majority of American movie goer talents of Ariyon Bakar and Olga Dihovichnaya respectively what you are given here is a fairly good collection of performances that, had they been in a genuinely great slice of cinema plus been given more in terms of substance and heft, could have been equally as great in their own right.

All in all is Life “2017” a perfect or even brilliant slice of cinema? Not even close. At the same time though, is it terrible or downright moronic? I wouldn’t say that either even if the cast of characters in this certainly make more than their fair share and then some of idiotic mistakes that will have you shaking your head in utter disbelief. If anything, I would say that this slice of cinema is good yet not great. With that in mind, if you are looking for a movie that is genuinely nightmare-inducing, tense as all get out, seen by many as a cornerstone of sci-fi horror cinema, is brilliantly filmed, and has a collection of performances that each and every one of are absolutely spot-on in execution….then might I recommend this slice of cinema from 1979 called Alien? I definitely think you’ll get a lot of mileage out of that one. On the other hand, if you want a slice of cinema that is competently made and competently performed by a group of definitely talented actors, but is also one that I have no doubt will qualify as rainy-day cinema that will also be one that manages to stay in the back of your mind for the length of time equivalent to one of those annoyingly catchy Mentos commercials from back in the day then I definitely think that this is one movie that will be right up your alley. Suffice it to say then that no Life “2017” might not be the say-all, end-all when it comes to hostile aliens making people’s lives a living nightmare cinema, but there is also a fair bit of (for lack of a better word) life to be found here as well. Make of that what thou will. On a scale of 1-5 I give Life “2017” a solid 3.5 out of 5.