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.

Rogue One shines when it’s not being dreary and uninteresting

The new Star Wars is let down by weak writing and uninteresting characters

Where to start when it comes to Star Wars? The subject is so wide ranging, controversial and comprehensive that there really isn’t any point summing anything up, if you’re reading this then you are already familiar with Star Wars. Rogue One is a spin off and Disney’s first big swing at diversifying the Star Wars cinematic universe, something which up until now has had a very strict structure applied to it. Rogue One is the first of three semi related side projects designed to be released in between the episodic features that are the mainstay for the franchise. We’re halfway to Episode 8 so it’s time to remind everyone what Star Wars is about… In case they forgot.

It is not a stretch to imagine that Rogue One is merely a cash grab designed to fan the flames of fans and to sell merchandise. In a sense this does come through the screen but merchandise, fan service and Star Wars are so interwoven at this point it is hard to tell where Star Wars ends and where the vertical integration begins.

For this review, I would like to put aside merchandise. I would like to put aside Storm Trooper redesigns and the fact that there is a melee weapon that turns into a crossbow just like my old Power Rangers toy used to. Let’s put aside the new hype for Episode 8 and let’s shut the hell up about diversification of races and genders in Star Wars. Let’s look at Rogue One on its own merits as “A Star Wars Story.”

Rogue One follows the team of rebels and their journey to steal the plans for the Death Star. The team is made up of six characters of which we are introduced to over the first hour. The characters then spend five minutes talking to each other and fighting Storm Troopers before deciding to band together to fight for the rebellion.

Where Rogue One succeeds is in its battle sequences. The magic of Star Wars is the ability to retell any story with a fantastical gloss over it and some scenes in Rogue One really feel like they are embracing that. One battle scene is set in a middle eastern looking market town and has a rougher, grittier feel to it than Star Wars usually does, as insurgents rush a Storm Trooper tank and throw explosives.The Battle of Scarif is a great sequence, although it must once again recycle A New Hope’s style, it does feature some great visuals and fun additions. The Skyhammer is a welcome addition, a space ship designed to crash into and push other ships, which creates the most visually marvellous moment of the movie. What is unique to Rogue One is that it embraces a soldiering aesthetic for large portions of its battles. At times the film looks like it is taking place in war town Iraq and towards the end could be ripped right from a Vietnam movie; only with space ships and lasers. For short periods, Rogue One is everything Star Wars can be.

However the tone is inconsistent and the soldiering allusions come out of nowhere. The film is not set up in a way where the final confrontation seems to meld with the introduction. The first twenty minutes of the film is nothing but long drawn out exposition, yet it fails to deliver the essential emotional connection to the character of Jyn Erso. Without her doing anything remotely likeable or cool or funny or resourceful or smart there is no reason to side with her or care about her. She is an amazingly flat character played with zero charisma. At least four planets are visited within the first twenty minutes of the film and character names are thrown out like confetti. I understand that world building is nuanced but Rogue One essentially vomits out a glossary of words as soon as it can get away with it and loses valuable time that could be spent on making us care about its characters.

Star Wars has always been a kid friendly series, it is a way to channel your inner child and have fun watching what you can only imagine, yet Rogue One is consistently let down by its characters who are so unbelievably drab and two dimensional it borders on offensive. The scenes that link together the action scenes are slogs pieced together by basic dialogue delivered in monotones by actors with no expressions. I had the same thought while watching Batman Vs Superman; any kids watching will be bored out of their mind by everything but the fight sequences. The only source of levity in the film is the mechanical sidekick K-2SO. K-2SO is a robot that has had his inhibitions removed and so is capable of insurmountable levels of sass. He is the source for 100% of the films comedy and does well to carry the entire cast. Yet his jokes and remarks are completely ignored by the entire cast, there is zero chemistry between the six leads, but at least K-2SO is trying to lighten the mood.

Recommendation

If you still get shivers when you hear a lightsabre turning on; If you love space battles and AT-ATs and Darth Vader; If you want to see tie ins and cameos and spot hidden references; If you just want more Star Wars, then this is the film for you. If you are fully on board with the film’s premise from the get-go, you’ll probably enjoy it.

It looks fantastic, the designs of the cities and robots and characters are magnificently rendered. It is soiled by bad acting and awkward pacing and never really feels independent of its franchise. Rogue One is a passable appetizer for a 40-year-old main course.