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An Alien Movie

Jake Gyllenhaal
Jake Gyllenhaal
Columbia Pictures
 104 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson

Filmgoers and critics rarely fully appreciate a true original until well after the fact. What are now acknowledged classics like Psycho and Blazing Saddles were dismissed on their initial releases. It’s only after the passage of time and the coming and going of many inferior remakes and ripoffs that these movies are truly appreciated. Such was the case with Ridley Scott’s Alien, which Vincent Canby of the New York Times called “an extremely small, rather decent movie of its modest kind, set inside a large, extremely fancy physical production.” Over the years, however, Alien grew in stature, and its imitators grew in numbers. Now, in 2017, on the eve of yet another version of the actual Alien, comes Life, an imitator to be sure, but a rather decent movie of its own modest kind.


Life is set sometime in the immediate future, on board the International Space Station, home to a small crew of ethnically diverse astronauts and, more recently, some soil samples from the planet Mars. As the ship heads back to Earth, the crew discovers that the soil samples contain long-frozen live cells, the first evidence of extra-terrestrial life. Soon, the station’s biologist, Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), manages to bring the cells back to life, where they start multiplying and evolving into a more complex organism.


Derry is fascinated at first by the versatility of the organism, which looks a bit like a Venus flytrap. Schoolchildren on Earth come up with a name for the creature as well, Calvin. Looks can be deceiving, though, as Derry finds out, when the creature escapes from its enclosure and starts growing rapidly and displaying a considerable appetite. From this point on, Life begins to follow the Alien storyline fairly closely, right down to Calvin’s propensity to enter and exit people’s bodies in rather gruesome fashion. And, needless to say, as Calvin does so, the number of people left alive on the space station starts to dwindle as well.


The crew members face another serious problem, in addition to trying to stay alive and dispose of Calvin. Namely, as a result of various mishaps that occur while the crew tries to get rid of Calvin, the space station winds up in a rapidly decaying orbit, creating the possibility that a still-living Calvin might wind up on Earth where it could multiply and cause enormous damage. So, the crew faces a deadline similar to what Sandra Bullock’s character faced in Gravity.


I’m not that familiar with the timeline of the script for Life, but it wouldn’t surprise me if screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who also wrote Deadpool and Zombieland) had Alfonso Cuaron’s film in mind when they penned the script. Certainly, the visual elements in Life recall those in the Cuaron film, and director Daniel Espinosa has crafted a stylish looking film. But Life has some other cinematic ancestors as well, ranging from Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey to the vintage 50s monster film, The Blob. In fact, the “adult” version of Calvin even bears a striking resemblance to Audrey II (from Little Shop of Horrors) grafted onto a squid’s tentacles.


Despite the plot similarities to Alien, Life is missing two elements that made the earlier film a classic. The first, and biggest, is the enormous presence of Sigourney Weaver as the heroine Riploey. Of course, when the film was made, Weaver was pretty much of an unknown, and the script kept her safely nestled among a crew crammed full of some of the best character actors around, like Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, and John Hurt. But when push came to shove, Ripley took over in a way few, if any, women had done before in an action film.


The other trademark of Alien is the creature itself, the brainchild of the incomparable artist, H. R. Giger. Absent computer technology, Giger and the effects crew sculpted the alien, intended as the epitome of animal evil. Ironically, Espinosa’s effects crew have the computer technology at their disposal that allows Calvin to do much more than Giger’s alien ever could, but the appearance of Calvin, or, at this point in horror film history, virtually any physical monster, simply doesn’t have the same impact.


Despite the absence of Giger and Weaver, Espinosa has done the best with what he has, and the results are a surprisingly effective horror thriller. Espinosa employs a number of tracking shots from Calvin’s point of view, as the creature goes through the ship’s ventilation system in search of its targets. This leads to surprisingly effective chases as the human characters go through doors and hatches, trying to seal Calvin out with the unseen creature literally nipping at their heels. The director also takes advantage of the three-dimensional nature of interplanetary space ship travel, with tracking shots that show the crew literally able to work at any angle. This works to the advantage of Hugh Derry, a paraplegic who isn’t as handicapped in space as he would have been on earth. Ironically, this leads to a situation in which Derry and ship’s pilot Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose wife has just had a baby, have better developed characters than do the film’s three ostensible leads.


Those leads: Jake Gyllenhaal as medical officer David Jordan, Rebecca Ferguson as Miranda North, a CDC representative and expert on quarantines (a nice person to have on board on this particular mission), and Ryan Reynolds as Roy Adams, engineer and resident hot shot, have underwritten roles and, for the most part, deliver underwritten, if steady performances. The script conveniently gives them the background to best tangle with Calvin, making the eventual duel between the competing life forms about as suspenseful as possible in this type of movie.


Life does not break any new cinematic ground. Espinosa knows this; the cast and crew know this; the writers know this. The audience will not be dazzled by something they’ve never seen before, but what they are likely to experience a time or two is a sense of admiration for the filmmakers taking some time tested concepts and serving them up in a slick, suspenseful fashion. In the old days, Life might be considered a B-movie, but its budget and headliners have ensured a wide release. In an era of completely inane and incompetent reworkings like CHIPS, there is something to be said for the quality of this production. This is one Life worth living.

In this scene, Jake Gyllenhaal tries to save a fellow astronaut.

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Life (2017) on IMDb