Review: ‘Life’ steals playbook from ‘Alien,’ still manages to be forgettable

In space, no one can hear you scream. We’ve known that for nearly 40 years.

But space, perhaps, could also the place where we can send “Life” so it doesn’t have to be endured by us Earthlings.

Daniel Espinosa’s tale of space-station-turned-house-of-horrors is enamored with the 1977 classic “Alien,” so explicitly so that its adoration makes those of us on the outside of this clearly one-sided relationship feel a bit disgusted and uncomfortable by the way it borrows its every influence.

And it’s evident from the very first shot, the camera slowly and eerily drifting through space just like the start of “Alien,” making us feel an isolation that has become almost like a second cinematic home in recent years (See: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “The Martian,” etc., etc.).

Inside the International Space Station that eventually comes into view is a small crew of astronauts which has just captured the first irrefutable proof of alien life. One of the astronauts – Hugh, a much too optimistic scientist to be poking around in a petri dish of alien life – calls it “Calvin” out of a sense of affection. But (surprise, surprise) Calvin is a stone cold killer.

The movie wants you to think he’s offing the humans one by one out of a natural survival instinct, but let’s be real: Calvin is enjoying being a source of torment and terror once he breaks loose.

“Life,” admittedly, does an adequate job in the early going by steadily building momentum as Calvin squirms his way through the ship like he knows the place. There are one or two fairly memorable sequences as he terrorizes his victims, but for some reason the film feels the need to break that momentum at times by morphing from horror into character-driven drama.

There’s certainly enough backstory – too much, actually – to remind us that these bodies of flesh and blood have lives back on Earth. Well, that goes for everyone but Jake Gyllenhaal’s David, who prefers the lonely quiet of space (he’s been up there for over 400 straight days) to the chaos of life on our blue and green planet.

There’s too many characters for there to really be a leading force. For a film so heavily influenced by “Alien,” “Life” is missing its Ripley – the hero we know little about but has so much charisma that we can’t help but cheer them on.

By comparison, Gyllenhaal and co. are so lifeless that it’s hard not to look forward to Calvin play cat-and-mouse with them.

Speaking of Calvin, his appearance and cadence is an easy target for cheap laughs at first, but make no mistake that it doesn’t take long for him to turn into a human-sized storm of violence and destruction, even if his tentacle-y design is uninspired.

For a film with an R-rating, that destruction doesn’t seem to be as visceral as it should be, though. Take away a few pints of blood and the handful of F-bombs, and “Life” is a PG-13 film with a slightly higher box office intake. What Espinosa was trying to accomplish by dialing back on some of the horror elements, I’m not sure, but it certainly doesn’t work to keep “Life” back from its full potential.

And then there’s the ending, which is sure to polarize. I’m on the side of “that was completely unnecessary”; it feels like little more than a desperate attempt at relevance, a talking point for a movie that surely is aware that it doesn’t have much life of its own.

Ultimately what leads to “Life’s” downfall is its complete failure to make us care for its characters. At times it’s too morose for its own good. One minute we’re following Calvin as he crawls along the outside of the ISS, looking for a way in while the crew is desperately barring all hatches. The next minute, the astronauts are contemplating the meaning of life and questioning their mission, as if they could care less about the extinction of the human race.

“Life” a cheap knockoff of a classic in the genre, without actually being inspired by what made “Alien” so terrifying: a pinch of originality, a type of horror we’ve never seen. “Life,” meanwhile, would be tough to recommend over modern straight-to-DVD offerings that at least offer something new.

 

“Life” is rated R for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada

Directed by Daniel Espinosa

2017

Review: In latest ‘Kong,’ visuals reign over logic, dull characters

The familiar question “Kong: Skull Island” seems to want to pose is: How powerless is man and his weapons when faced with nature’s most threatening forces?

Instead, it feels that those behind the camera were hell-bent on satisfying another curiosity: How much subpar filmmaking can the audience endure to get to the eye candy?

The latest iteration of the influential franchise that is nearing an unexpected 100 years of life is also one of its loudest and dumbest. It amounts to nearly two hours (though, thankfully, it seems much shorter) of brainless hodgepodge that teeters on overindulgence, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Transformer films for the worst reasons.

It’s one thing to make a monster movie and putting its human characters in the backseat. But if director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Dan Gilroy are putting their scaly, furry, deadly creations front and center, their human counterparts aren’t just in the backseat; they’re being dragged through the road behind them at 100 miles an hour.

The dumbfounding thing is that part of “Kong” seems to want to make the humans an integral part of the story, even though it’s impossible to tell which of its handful of leading characters is supposed to be the main protagonist.

Is it Brie Larson’s idealistic photographer? Tom Hiddleston’s unconvincingly rugged tracker? Samuel L. Jackson’s tormented Vietnam War general, John Goodman’s obsessive scientist? They all have a legitimate case, and as underwhelming as their stories are, it’s clear that Gilroy was hoping one of them would hit the mark.

Even John C. Reilly’s Skull Island denizen has an unexpectedly large role, even though all he is destined to elicit are groans from the audience.

John Goodman plays Bill Randa, a scientist determined to prove that monsters exist, and researching them could hold scientific advantages. He manages to secure the support of a senator for a trip to Skull Island while the rest of the country’s leaders are preoccupied with the end of the Vietnam War (“There will never be a more screwed up time in Washington,” Randa says, in what might be the most ironically timely line of the year in a film).

After recruiting Hiddleston and Jackson to his team, and Larson hopping on as a photographer curious to see what Randa is on about, its off to the mythical land of monsters, where they are greeted with flying trees aimed at their helicopters and a grump Kong who doesn’t take too kindly to visitors.

From there, the adventure is on.

At least “Kong” doesn’t waste much time getting to its titular setting, and it doesn’t skimp out on its creatures either. The film boasts numerous creative monsters, snarling, snapping, seething their way on the screen. They provide the most satisfying moments of wonder, and absolutely share as much screentime as Kong, who, oddly enough, seems almost like a sidelined character in his own story at times.

But when he isn’t, the film’s most glorious shots (many of them prominently featured in marketing) unfold, like the ape king blocking out a huge sun in the vein of “Apocalypse Now” as he keeps watch over his territory, or as he lumbers morosely through valleys, the world’s deadliest loner.

“Kong: Skull Island” takes place in 1973, and it very much embraces its time period with hazy, napalm-colored horizons, a Rolling Stones-infused soundtrack, and even the relevant themes of paranoia. It’s all here.

While “Kong’s” aesthetic is consistent, the film’s tone isn’t. At times a full-on B-movie romp, at others an adventure film, and other points still a darkly gritty tale of revenge, “Kong” takes on more than we really ask it to, an unfortunate side effect of its overcrowded human cast (none of which are particularly memorable anyway).

Generally, “Kong: Skull Island” feels fairly unnecessary, the main purpose for its existing being a desire to show the immense scale that modern visual effects can provide. In that sense, I suppose, Kong himself is an appropriate case study, a suitable prop for the effects studio responsible for the film’s spectacle.

It’s tough not to compare “Kong: Skull Island” to its immediate predecessor from 2005: Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” which feels like an uber-intimate and more dramatic character study of the monster by comparison to “Skull Island.”

In truth, the two couldn’t be more different. Even their apes look strikingly different. Jackson’s ate bamboo; Vogt-Roberts’ eats the tentacles of a squid that just tried to subdue him.

Whereas Jackson’s film offers a layered portrayal of Kong and his relationship to actress-turned-hostage Ann Darrow, Vogt-Roberts’ take is a much more dumbed-down affair that seeks to amaze through thrills rather than making us feel actual feelings for a 150-foot monkey.

Which is completely fine. In many ways, he accomplishes what he set out to do with “Kong: Skull Island,” though I wish it actually added something to the mythos of the legendary creature. Its high-flying action set pieces are entertaining enough, but its generally non-inventive plot and complete confusion of how to handle its characters almost makes it not worth the trip at all.

 

 

“Kong: Skull Island” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

2017

Review: ‘Logan’ is a bloodily introspective affair that ends an iconic journey with more of a whimper than a shout of triumph

“X-Men” movies have always been about strength in numbers, finding family where others might just see freaks.

That formula has stayed consistent even with the “stand-alone” Wolverine flicks (which really just mean our favorite mutant teaming up with new allies), and even with the franchise’s first decidedly adult foray in 2016 with Deadpool, as the Merc with a Mouth seeks the help of Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead.

But with “Logan,” the majority of the spotlight shines on Hugh Jackman’s alter ego, providing X-Men fans with an examination of the character 17 years in the making that is as complex as anything we’ve seen so far from the franchise, and perhaps the superhero genre as a whole.

Oh, and yes, there’s blood. Buckets and buckets of it to make up for what seems like 10 movies’ worth of carnage that was still trying to appeal to 10-year-old fans.

Director James Mangold takes care to make sure that the movie’s (much) more mature aesthetic manifests itself in more than just claws ripping endless waves of cronies to shreds. “Logan” also deals with some of the darkest themes of the series, making the so-called isolated and lonely experience of being a mutant at Professor Xavier’s school come off as a paradise.

There, teenage mutants are learning to control their powers by grown-ups who have come to terms with their constant struggle of being different from humanity. In “Logan,” children even younger than those at Xavier’s are making ends meet on their own, trying to survive while being hunted down by humans an age when mutants aren’t born so much as they are manufactured.

That’s the case of the young Laura when she eventually crosses paths with an old and grumpier than usual Logan, hiding out in the borderlands of southern Texas where he doesn’t have to worry about anyone that he doesn’t seem to care about anyway.

logan-trailer-003-1280x533

That even extends to his care of an old Charles Xavier, who is in a much more vulnerable state than we’ve ever seen him, and who seems to have given up on trying to convince Logan that he is meant to be more than the monster he was bred to be.

The duo reside with another mutant caretaker, passing the days with seemingly no end goal save to wait for their own bodies and mutant genes to wear out on them, until Laura gives them one more mission to embark on.

Jackman has stated that this turn as Wolverine is his last, and if that turns out to be the case, he delivers a powerfully nuanced and emotional performance that allows for insight into his character in ways we’ve never seen before. It’s easy to forget about Logan’s internal plight in other X-Men flicks when he’s fighting for something much grander than getting over his own existential crisis, but “Logan” forces you to contemplate the type of person someone becomes when they’ve become used to enduring through violence and rage.

Patrick Stewart also shines as the debilitated Xavier that has some of the best lines of the movie (whoever knew the professor could be this profane?), and Laura is quietly affecting in a largely dialogue-less role.

“Logan” certainly feels much more like a drama than a traditional superhero flick, one which successfully proves that deeper explorations of the genre’s characters and their motives can make for entertaining films, despite this one’s pacing issues. There aren’t any flashy effects, the villains aren’t of a supernatural nature and the world, or what’s left of it, doesn’t necessarily need saving.

However, the fact that Mangold makes character exploration the focus of “Logan” doesn’t mean it’s truly groundbreaking in any way; it simply takes a different narrative route than other superhero movies, albeit one that transcends the genre’s tropes. “Logan” is bold and brutal, but in many ways we only feel like we’re seeing something totally fresh because it’s the first such intimate foray in, or out of, the genre.

The most interesting thing that Mangold’s script delves into is Logan’s strained relationship with his rage and his efforts to control it. Jackman effectively portrays the struggles that Logan must live with in balancing that rage and using it in small doses, before taking the leap and releasing for the good of someone other than himself.

You never got the sense that that was a problem with previous “X-Men” films, but here it represents his internal journey.

Despite focusing more on the character and how he sees the world rather than how the world sees mutants (of which there are only a handful left in the not-so-distant future of the film), “Logan” by many accounts is very standard fare. The script does right by Jackman’s devotion the character, but very little else is there to intrigue us for the film’s 2 hours and 15-minute runtime.

There’s certainly brutal and bloody violence, but that gets to be heavy-handed at some points. The road-trip-across-America is bogged down by some questionable character choices, and with most of the movie’s most interesting backstory — the “how the hell did we get to where we are?” — Mangold wrongfully chooses to tease instead of explain fully.

As far as diverging from the straight-and-narrow path that today’s endless stream of superhero films are released from, “Logan” is a welcome step in the right direction at showing the storytelling possibilities of heroes we’ve come to know and love, but it’s just a start.

Deep introspection of one of those heroes that moviegoers have grown attacked to means showing sides of that character we never really thought about exploring, but by “Logan’s” end, we haven’t really  learned anything new about him. We just see him in his darkest and most dreary state. For some reason, that’s enough for Mangold,  when it isn’t for the audience.

 

“Logan” is rated R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook

Directed by James Mangold

2017