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When Daniel Espinosa’s Life was announced as the closing film at South By Southwest this year, I was pretty happy with the choice, even though it was only a week or so out from its release to the general public.
After all, the SXSW committee did an excellent job with the Headliner series this year: Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde, and Free Fire are sure to be massive hits, The Disaster Artist received nothing but the most effusive praise after its work-in-progress screening, and, though it’s been savaged by the film press, it’s better to have struck out getting a Terrence Malick premiere (and getting the guy to sit down for an interview) than to open with something bland and inoffensive.
So, Life was the last film amongst the titans to screen at the festival, and I’m sad to say it’s a whiff of almost epic proportions, a hodge-podge of clumsy references to other films and bad writing that can’t be saved by a really fascinating cast.
Life is about the revival of microbial life from Mars on the International Space Station, and proceeds to kill everyone it comes across and attempts to kill everyone on Earth for giving it the name “Calvin.” It visualizes the worst-case scenario in that situation: Incompetent (and sometimes downright moronic) crewmen meet unstoppable killing machine in a fight so one-sided that I don’t even necessarily consider it a spoiler to say that shit goes pretty poorly for anything from our planet. I never understood why people complained so much about Prometheus’ characters and how they made such horrible decisions when confronted with the possibility of death — it seemed somewhat understandable, at least from a dumb animal brain level, to not run away from the giant crashing spaceship — but how stupid Life’s characters are made to be in the face of absolute species-wide annihilation is having me reconsider my thoughts on that.
Seriously, the characters are shown to be so dumb by their actions over the course of that they’re all lucky there’s no gravity up there, as their knuckles are spared the scraping they’d get from being dragged here on the surface. And Jesus, they’re the scientists! The best and brightest!
It’s not like Espinosa or the screenwriters (Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, The Joe Schmo Show) have any interest in making us care about our chattle. Our characters range from the one-note and bland (Ryan Reynolds is the funny average joe! The Russian commander is serious!) to two-dimensional and bland (Rebecca Ferguson misses her dad and is tough! Jake Gyllenhaal hates everybody and wishes he could stay in space forever!) to the two-dimensional and uncomfortably trope-ish (Ariyon Bakare wishes he could walk again so he puts everybody’s lives at risk to see if the creature can potentially work like stem cells do!). It’s amazing that the cast is able to pull off a semblance of camaraderie and likability with what they’re given, though anyone expecting a “Spirit in the Sky” quip-a-long like Guardians of the Galaxy or The Martian like the trailers have been advertising will be sorely disappointed. You’d think the writers of Deadpool would attempt to include a couple more quips in there or perhaps work some more interesting action beats into the script, but nope! They removed their pun-based pop culture quips to make room for Espinosa’s cerebral appropriation of other, better work.
And that’s not just limited to Sir Ridley’s oeuvre. Espinoza name-checked John Carpenter’s The Thing at a post-screening Q&A like he was pleading the fifth, as if invoking that masterpiece would somehow enhance his testimony. It had the opposite effect for me, to be honest: It just made it clearer how much of a disappointment Life is, especially when compared to all of the other movies it wants to pick a fight with. It demands comparison right from the start, where a 20-minute tracking shot of the astronauts recovering a probe seems to say “Hey Gravity, suck on this!” only to find itself in the parking lot ten minutes later with two black eyes wondering what the hell punched it in the face as Gravity rides off into the sunset. That film seems to be Life’s best point of comparison, and it bests it in absolutely every regard: VFX work, acting, direction, cinematography; hell, even the message is more vital and interesting.
If Gravity is about finding the will to survive after enduring tragedy and heartbreak, Life is about how your mildly shitty attitude towards other people may possibly, after a number of coincidences, doom the human race. What a shame, too. There’s glimpses of fun potential and cool images throughout the entire thing (Gyllenhaal’s character has an obsession with yo-yoing in zero g, Reynolds’ scene with the monster seems to have been taken from a much creepier film), but ultimately it just never truly knows what to do with it.
Man, Life’s a drag.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and use #VanyaSXSW for all Vanyaland’s ongoing coverage at South-By-Southwest 2017.