Saturday, March 25, 2017

Alien "Life"

2017; written by Rhett Rheese and Paul Wernick; directed by Daniel Espinosa

Due to a happy confluence of a good friend's career worries and a free Friday afternoon, I found myself among Chicago's first regular Joes and Janes to see Life.

We came to the film with competing agendas. I was hoping for something that would recreate those sick feelings of dread unleashed by the original Alien. My buddy was simply hoping the storyline wouldn't step all over certain elements in his own upcoming project.

Based on the trailers and early reviews, we had plenty of reason to anticipate both. In Life, a group of astronauts aboard the International Space Station capture a probe returning with the first soil samples from Mars. The discovery of a single-celled organism first intrigues and then excites them, along with their eight billion fellow humans below. But the crew's enthusiasm soon turns to alarm when the organism begins to grow, attacks a fellow researcher, and escapes the confines of the lab. Making matters worse, the creature is basically a fast-moving bundle of extraterrestrial stem cells, making it all muscle, all nerve, all brain -- "a tough little son of a bitch," to quote Alien's science officer Ash.

But for all its homages to Alien (and there are plenty of them) Life doesn't quite hit all the hot buttons that its predecessor thumbed so well. Where each of the Nostromo's crew members is unique, with plenty of psychological and physical quirks to distinguish one from the other, the crew in Life is basically a good-looking bunch of polite space professionals whose biggest disagreements play out in exchanges of good-natured bickering. Even Jake Gyllenhall's character, a haunted-looking misanthrope who's been aboard the space station longer than anyone and is in no hurry to leave, decides to do the right thing for the sake of humankind.

When it comes to the monster, Life's semi-transparent starfish fails to stir the same Freudian anxieties that made H.R. Giger's penis-headed xenomorph famous -- even though it seeks to penetrate the human body just as much. (In addition to the trailer's shot of it slipping into Ryan Reynold's mouth, it's suggested in the film that the slimy little bugger will take any opening it can find.) The gore it unleashes is all courtesy of CGI, and lacks the visceral punch of Ridley Scott's practical effects.

I will give Life credit for not dishing up a happy ending. Not only does it end with a twist, but it's a dark and nasty one that only the most aware viewer will see coming -- and then only a few minutes before it arrives.

As we discussed things afterward over a beer, we were both happy we'd seen it. This film is fast-paced science-fiction fun. The visuals are stunning, with a which-way-is-up style that increases the claustrophobia; the music and sound design never let up, keeping the tension high. Though it wasn't as good as I'd hoped, it wasn't as bad as my friend had feared, either.

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