Life wasn’t what I expected, but I still got a kick out of it

Life is tough: one moment you’re hanging round with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, the next thing you know you’re being constricted by a tentacle monster and deprived of oxygen

Trailers are an ever changing thing, they’ve gained a reputation in modern times of giving away too much of the story. They so often follow the same beats set to the same musical cues and can mislead the public into thinking a film is something it isn’t.  This is not the case with Life, a sci-fi survival thriller marketed as a clone of Alien which plays out like a clone of Alien. I saw two trailers for Life in the cinema, one which was made it look like the most generic sci fi movie ever made and another which was simply a clip taken directly from near the beginning of the film. Never before have I seen two trailers for the same film with such a chasm in quality. Having seen the generic trailer first, my expectations for Life were set extremely low.

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. The premise behind Life is simple; Astronauts aboard the International Space Station discover microbial alien life, the organism grows until it is big enough to kill people, and then it kills people. It’s a classic horror movie set aboard the ISS, nothing special about the story, it’s how the story is told that makes the difference.

Plot-wise the film is a pretty standard outing, it progresses in a slow pace to begin with, focusing on the science and daily work of the astronauts. It allows for basic character building before going gung-ho on the violent rampage. The characters are likeable enough for you to not want them to die, but not sympathetic enough to not warrant a cheer when they are slaughtered by a tentacle monster.

Visually it is all very bland, the space station is as cookie cutter as sci fi design can get and the cinematography is all very forgettable. The first sequence of the movie is one long shot, reminiscent of Gravity, the camera bobs and weaves in the zero-g, it seems to promise that the film will be trying to have fun with the camera. However, it amounts to nothing other than a few upside-down shots and canted angles.

The overuse of CG is rife in this film, the monster is constantly shown front and centre and in full light, which highlights its seamless skin textures and unrealistic contact with the environment. Its forgivable and not something I take gripe with because the monster is for the most part well designed and creepy. But it’s hard to shake the thought that this film is likely going to look like dated trash in five years.

An issue that Life faces is that there are no real rules to dictate the behaviour of the monster, it is clearly stated in Alien and Aliens that the Xenomorphs are afraid of fire, whereas the monster in this film is pretty much invincible until the plot dictates that it shouldn’t be. But my biggest problem is that there is little to no mystique surrounding the monster, in Alien the Xenomorph stays interesting because it creeps in the shadows, it is shown piece by piece throughout the movie. A claw here, a tail there, just out of frame, this breeds a level of tension and anticipation that Life fails to reach. It doesn’t make you crave the next sighting because you have seen it all before, every inch. You’ve literally seen it under a microscope, the film attempts to keep it interesting by changing the design of the monster as it grows, but it amounts to nothing more than more CGI tendrils and the eventual addition of a pretty laughable face.

The only thing to look forward to in Life is how the next kill is going to happen. Luckily the film manages to pull out some fantastically sadistic monster movie murders. Some well-paced, terrifying ideas are put into practice and realised in memorable ways, it saves the movie even if it does run out of ideas towards the end.

Recommendation

I could keep discussing this film in its minutia but in all honesty, it doesn’t really matter. The film is average Hollywood movie making on almost every level, it’s cinematography is uninteresting but competent, its lighting is balanced, clear and non-dramatic. The soundtrack is an assault of WAAHs and its characters are passable. What the film does offer is a crisp, clean version of the dirty, dingy Alien, chopped and changed enough to still feel new and different. The story takes some exciting turns and ends with an interesting message.

There is enough to take home with you after viewing Life. Within the film are a series of sparse moments that are vividly memorable and cinematic. It has enough interesting ideas to sustain a solid sci fi movie. It is not one of the best movies you will ever see but it is undoubtedly enjoyable.

Passengers is sleek and polished on the surface but a muddled mess at its core

Passengers’ promising first act is let down by the avalanche of farce that proceeds it

Science fiction is experiencing a bit of a boom lately, no doubt boosted by the power of new Star Wars movies and ever increasing ‘nerd culture.’ But sci-fi is often expensive, CGI heavy and cerebral. Meaning that it can be a difficult genre for a studio to simply cash in on: for every District 9 there are at least ten Battleships. So how can a studio ensure that a generic conglomeration of popular sci-fi tropes and unoriginal visuals makes a sensible profit? Why, of course, by sticking two of the biggest stars on the planet in a spaceship and ensuring that they fuck each other, so they can show it in the trailer. Unfortunately for desperate corporate ploys to capitalise on market research, Passengers has not been the breakout success that was hoped for.

Passengers is a film starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as passengers aboard The Avalon. The ship is taking 5000 paying customers to another planet to escape the husk that the Earth has become, the two wake up 90 years earlier than other passengers and cannot get themselves back into stasis, leaving them stranded on The Avalon together. One positive thing to say about Passengers is that it is at least an original story rather than a reboot or a sequel. However, a negative thing to say about Passengers is that there doesn’t seem to be many original ideas in it outside of its premise. The visuals are refined and clean but unfortunately seem to be almost entirely taken directly from previously successful sci-fi films; Alien, Prometheus and 2001: A Space Odyssey being the three main examples. References and inspiration can be a good thing but too many of them and the film just begins to feel like a stale rehash.

It is not only in the visuals that Passengers feels unoriginal. It also borrows several moments almost verbatim from recent films such as Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Martian. Now that is not to say that sci-fi has to be 100% original, in fact in most cases it is common to repeat successful movies’ motifs, but Passengers does this with so much frequency that it becomes a Frankenstein’s monster made up of mostly of other films dramatic beats.

The film is a tonal mess that appears to not know whether or not it should take itself seriously and when humour is appropriate. Starring Chris Pratt means that there will of course be comic elements but the film produces what seem like unintentional moments of comedy through strange editing choices and inappropriate dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence’s character Aurora interrupts a sweet romantic moment by stopping mid-laughter and stating in the most deadpan way “for a minute I almost forgot my life is in ruins” and Aurora continues to be an incessant downer for the rest of the movie. The film contains comical pratfalls, facial expressions that would make the Wayan bros blush and a hilariously tactless robot doctor, none of which were intended to be funny. Unless they were, in which case the film should have just been a comedy.

What disappoints me so much about the film is that it is possible that there was at least one good film in there somewhere. There is a heavy theme of isolation a ’la The Shining, blatantly displayed by Michael Sheen’s android bartender, Arthur. This seems to be setting the film up as a psychodrama about a man lost in space slowly losing his sanity. The film jumps straight from this sort of heavy subject matter to a Risky Business/Home Alone style montage and immediately back into goofy comedy. Followed by the introduction of a genuinely tough moral choice and some significant character development the film fails to develop on the ideas and instead turns into a romance before turning back into the most generic sci-fi film possible. The film had set itself up as a combination of Moon and Misery which could have resulted in an interesting film. Instead the second half of the film falls into complete farce, sprinkled with plot holes, Deus-ex-Machina and hilariously bad writing.

Recommendation

There are parts of Passengers that are so bad that they are comical, but not enough to justify watching purely for its shortcomings. The film is a tonal mess with incredibly high production quality, unfortunately poor writing cannot be hidden behind CGI.

There are flashes of three disparate films in Passengers, one a moral dilemma based romance, the second a nervy psychodrama and the final is a by the numbers generic sci-fi. There is enough to like within the film but unfortunately there is way too much space in between it all.

Midnight Special engages in mysteries in the dark

Midnight Special does a lot with very little

Most recently I took issue with the beginning of Rogue One, a film which took too long to get going. By the time that it had established its motives and threats the film had already lost me due to throwing out too much mediocre exposition. I had quickly lost faith in the film. I found a nice counterpart to this in Midnight Special, a movie about faith. It takes a long time to start delivering answers but enshrouds itself in an aura of mystery and character drama.  Allowing connections to be made to the characters and questions to be asked as of people’s goals. The point that this drove home to me is that if a film’s beginning isn’t exciting then it must grab its viewers’ attention by being at least intriguing or cryptic. Midnight Special is both from the first scene.

The first scene is an incredibly efficient scene of exposition, using that age-old method of TV news we are introduced to a kidnapped child being held in a motel room by two gun wielding men. Immediately we must question how are we going to side with these men if these are our protagonists. But the gentle concern in the voice of Michael Shannon’s Roy tells us that cares for the boy and the ambiguity of the viewer is immediately established.

Adam Driver’s Paul is the most traditional, accessible character in the film as he is educated of the situation at the same time as the viewers. In a more traditional film he would be the protagonist. However, this is not a film about information, this is a film about faith and relationships, an ethos which is given form by the terrific performance of Michael Shannon as Alton’s father.

Whilst the film is overall a moving and emotive one with a heart of mystery the answers at times do not satisfy. It seems as if Midnight Special was made to not have any solid answers, yet the film gives away half-answers in the form of flowery dialogue, sometimes to a fault.

The purpose of the journey seems to become muddy in the middle, with the main driving factor being Alton’s infrequent episodes and panic attacks. The reasons for which are kept vague for all too long and like the team of runaways the film follows, viewers too are kept in the dark a bit too long. This leads to waning interest when the film should be building up to its conclusion.

The film wears its relatively muted budget beginnings on its sleeves, creating tension out unspectacular set pieces, an example being an extremely dramatic scene late in the film set in a traffic jam and a prolonged sequence involving a road block. Moments which would be 30 seconds long in a typical blockbuster are stretched out for five minute chunks that squeeze every last drop of tension out of the situation.

Midnight Special does a lot with very little. This is to its own credit for the most part but it does mean that there are moments that can lack that penetrative quality. Most notably the flashing eyes of Alton are visited repeatedly but fail to ever look any more than an After Effects overlay. Perhaps it looks so far out of place simply because the film is so gritty and modest in its effects that the eyes stand out like a sore thumb.

Recommendation

It is not Spielberg, Midnight Special is not for everyone, the air of mystery sometimes gives way to the entertainment value and can at times be frustratingly vague

Sci-fi fans will be disappointed by the lack of fantastical elements and thriller fans may be underwhelmed by the few set pieces. The film boasts great acting on all fronts and a nervy contemplative atmosphere that will engage fans of films that do things differently.