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.

Recut Trailers: The Neon Demon

Due to a lack of interesting releases this week and some personal reasons there has been no review written for this week.

A fresh review should be coming soon, but until that time here is a recut trailer for The Neon Demon. 

The video was more a personal exercise rather than being made for the site but I’m going to put it up here anyway. Clearly it is not good marketing to recut the trailer to a film that no one saw to look like a film no one would want to see, but there you go, it’s done now.

It was a serious challenge to recut the most stylish and interesting film of 2016 to look like generic crap and my editing skills are pretty much in their infancy. Any constructive criticism is more than welcome and some subscriptions to the channel would not go amiss as more videos are planned for downsize on YouTube.

Thanks for everyone who reads these things x

Split is Shyamalan at his best with traces of him at his worst

McAvoy is a joy to watch in this fascnating B-movie venture

M Night Shyamalan has had a fascinating career. Having found success with the release of The Sixth Sense in 1999, he went on to make a procession of big budget movies with severely diminishing returns. This came to a head with the release of The Last Airbender and After Earth, where his filmmaking ability and reputation crashed into a pit of internet comments and despair and in recent years he has become a punchline. So, what does a filmmaker do when his creditability is destroyed?

Apparently, the answer is to make a horror film about murderous grandparents because it seems as if his foray into cheesy B-movie horror, The Visit has allowed him to embrace his roots. Leading to his latest release, Split, an abduction thriller about a man with 23 distinct personalities. Which embraces its B-movie influences with open arms to great effect. James McAvoy carries the film as Kevin, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) who kidnaps three young girls. One of the girls, Casey, is troubled, detached and not well liked and she provides the emotional weight of the film while the other two girls are vapid horror movie fodder. Betty Buckley plays Dr Fletcher, Kevin’s psychiatrist who gets wind of what’s happening. The psychological aspect, limited locations and investigatory element all lend the film a Hitchcockian vibe.

The film is not sensitive, reproachful or probing, it is not a look into the mind of a killer, it is not ambiguous, it is an exploitation flick in all the right ways. Subtlety is hit with a sledgehammer and thrown in the lake. The film takes less than ten minutes for the central abduction to occur and starts showing us James McAvoy doing different voices because it knows that is what we are there to see. The film has 3 locations and less than a dozen speaking roles because it doesn’t need any more than that. The premise of a villain with 23 personalities is loaded with the possibility of so much fun that it needn’t divert from that.

Where Split fails is in the dialogue, which suffers when Kevin is not on the screen, the film is a well of pop psychology and over exposition, with characters detailing exactly what is happening and what will happen next a little too often. Shyamalan does well to establish the rules of the universe in the early part of the film yet he insists on constantly adding new rules on top of that and reiterating old ones. It’s a little tiring and eventually your eyes glaze over until McAvoy is back on screen. McAvoy is fantastic in this, Kevin has no distinguishing features, he is a mannequin to play with. His clothes indicate which personality is in control and when that option is not available McAvoy does well to embody different characters within the same body, it’s an admirable, odd and humorous thing to behold.

The film struggles to create empathy for Casey, our emotional ballast, who is silent and miserable even before her abduction. The film settles for multiple close-ups of her eyes and lips as a replacement for characterisation and it falls mostly flat. Yet there is an effort to create drama through a series of massively uninteresting flashbacks to her childhood, which only take away from the film and do nothing to enhance Casey’s character. That is until the last flashback, where we are given information that does not impact the story but rather Casey’s character, the question must be asked that if there was characterisation to be had, why wasn’t it at the beginning when we were establishing who Casey was in our minds?

It leads to a larger problem with Shyamalan’s filmmaking about saving information till the end which I have went into detail about here.

Recommendation

All the ingredients are there for a great little movie, a late night guilty pleasure. Small scale with a great focus, it’s a film that knows itself. Superficially the film looks great, the directing is effective and the ambient soundtrack creates a great uneasy tension.

The film is fun, held together by a multi-faceted but ultimately simple villain. Not by any stretch of the imagination is it a quality film but it is pure enjoyment, cinematic and endlessly interesting. People may be turned off by the final third of the movie and that is understandable but I believe it’s worth a watch. Split is exactly the type of film that Shyamalan should always have been making and I hope he continues embracing the beauty of the schlocky B-movie.