Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 31, 2017

Critic's Corner: In space, people can hear you rip off other movies

“Life” was born when someone grew bored while watching “Gravity” and said, “This would be cooler if it had an alien in it.”

He was only partially right. “Life” borrows liberally from both “Gravity” and “Alien” while making only a half-hearted attempt to develop its own identity. The result tastes like leftovers disguised as dump casserole.

“Life” is set on the International Space Station, where a team of scientists finds a dormant single-cell organism in a Martian soil sample and promptly lose the good sense God gave them. The plot relies so heavily on stupidity, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the film was called “When Smart People do Dumb Things” before someone wisely decided to borrow the name of the award-winning nature documentary.

The movie opens with the ISS crew capturing a space probe as it returns from Mars with the soil samples. Director Daniel Espinosa must have admired the long, unbroken shot at the beginning of “Gravity” because he does the same thing in “Life,” only within the confines of the ISS instead of outside of it.

Espinosa uses this time to introduce the crew and dole out a few tidbits about each person. There’s the hot shot pilot, the Asian systems engineer, the uptight quarantine officer and so on.

Some critics have complained that “Life” doesn’t offer enough background information on the crewmembers to cultivate sympathy for their fate, but the lack of character development didn’t bother me. How much time do you want to spend getting to know the first victim before he’s devoured from within at the 30-minute mark?

Of particular importance to the plot is the biologist, Hugh, who spots the microscopic organism in the soil and revives it with glucose and CO2. Soon after, the crew learns that each cell in the organism is “all muscle, all brain and all eye,” as the quarantine officer puts it.

This is where things go off the rails. If Hugh had seen any science fiction movie ever, he would have known not to poke the thing with his finger as it grows. But he apparently spent his college days studying rather than watching blockbuster sci-fi and pays dearly for it. Before long, the creature, which has already grown larger and more complex, is on the loose and hungry.

If “Life” has a single original idea in its bag of tricks, it’s the concept of the alien itself. Instead of being a typical xenomorph, the creature’s biological versatility allows it to adapt into what it needs to be at the moment.

For example, when it consumes a mouse, it turns into a digestive organ and wraps itself around the poor thing. When it needs to break through the glass of a sleeping pod, it channels its strength to its “arms” and squeezes the curved lid.

It’s probably to Espinosa’s credit that the film’s tension outpaces the hackneyed plotting for a good chunk of the movie. If all you want from an “Alien” clone is a bit of suspense and a few messy  deaths, “Life” will fit the bill.

I settled in and enjoyed the ride until the tears in the seams of the film became too big to ignore.

Especially disappointing was the tendency of the authors of the screenplay, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, to write in the moment and ignore what happened in other scenes. Early on, “Calvin,” as school children on Earth affectionately called the alien when it was still a wee splotch in a petri dish, gets locked outside the space station. Remarkably, it survives the extreme cold and lack of oxygen for several minutes before finding a way back in. But later, as the station’s life support systems are failing, Calvin becomes desperate to stay warm.

I don’t like when a movie cheats. You can’t place your creature, which you have established as being reliant on a rich atmosphere, in the cold, dead vacuum of space and allow it to survive. Reese and Wernick accomplish this by having someone say, “Wow, he’s been out there a long time and he’s still alive.”

My biggest beef with “Life,” though, is its shameless lifting of elements from other films. There are even shots near the end of the movie that shamelessly mirror shots from the final moments of “Gravity.”

While “Life” is technically well made and occasionally effective, Espinosa and company don’t add enough of their own ingredients to make the film taste like anything more than warmed-up leftovers. Here’s hoping “Alien: Covenant,” which hits theaters May 19, does a better job of honoring the past while standing on its own.

Two of four stars