Alright, folks, I'm back with another report from Movieland, and this time around it's Life, the sci-fi/horror film from Daniel Espinosa. While not a bad film, Life never really breaks out into anything particularly special, which is frustrating because it shows some pretty great initial promise.
Life is about a mission aboard the International Space Station, investigating a specimen from Mars representing the first evidence of life beyond Earth. And since it is a sci-fi/horror film things don't go quite as planned, for the humans anyway.
Ever since its first trailer, this film has been plagued by claims that it very closely apes Alien. And I will not seek here to refute those. Any film set on a spaceship where an alien runs amok will have to have parallels to that classic. Whether it does anything interesting with or against that archetype is where any new film will have to be measured. And Life does not accomplish much on that front. It shows skilled filmmaking in many areas, and is filled with well-paced, tense scenes. But it follows the established model faithfully, and therefore feels pretty by-the-numbers.
This is all the more frustrating because the film doesn't start this way. Its first scene, and by many measures the best, shows the real potential this film had. It follows the aesthetic established by Gravity and introduces our setting and characters in one long, slightly-disorienting take. Not necessarily groundbreaking, to be sure, but wouldn't an alien movie in that aesthetic be a great experience?
This scene feels like what was pitched to get the film made, and sadly it is quickly swept under the rug for a more conventional shooting style and story form. The remainder of the film is certainly competent, but lacks anything to distinguish it visually from any other space movie, and structurally from any monster horror film. Its thematic musings on the nature of life also have difficulty elevating themselves beyond the obligatory resting dialog before the film's final push. After a really gripping intro, we are left with little more than a generic riff on a genre that reached perfection in its first entry.
So Life is a film that, while not bad, is not quite good either. Its design, score, and actors' performances are all fine, but in the end do little redeeming work for a film that chooses to walk such an unadventurous line. Which was certainly a bummer for this lover of space movies.
Life features Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds, and is rated R for the things that happen when a terrifying space creature attacks you and some swearsing.
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
What do we talk about when we talk about monster movies?
The year's second major creature feature is here (I'm not forgetting about you, Monster Trucks!) and it has landed with a giant ape-sized wallop. Those of you who are interested in it are going to see it, and those of you who don't care aren't going to bother. So why am I writing about this anyway? Is there really anything to discuss? Short answer: I think so.
There is nothing new about the monster movie. And we keep gravitating back to them. Kong himself now has at least 4 features as a solo act, beginning over 80 years ago with his classic debut. So why can't we let him go? Kong: Skull Island answers this question, in part, in its own way.
The most obvious draw of the monster movie is the sheer visual spectacle. Think back to the 1933 original. Without that film's groundbreaking visual effects, where would we be today? There would be no Godzilla, no Jason and the Argonauts, Wallace and Gromit, Terminator, or, one could even argue, contemporary CG visual effects as we know them. It is difficult to overstate that film's impact. But it was originally produced as a piece of pop spectacle. Its poignant story certainly made it resonate, but its phenomenal effects made it a classic.
The visual elements are also what shine in Jordan Vogt-Roberts' new film, and, indeed, are what make it worth watching for the most part. In an age dominated by grayscale monoliths from Marvel and friends, the film's vibrant yellows and greens certainly stand out. The film is compositionally distinctive as well, mixing careful symmetry with off-center, floating shots to create something almost dream-like at times. The visuals are what sell its comparison to Apocalypse Now, although I find that comparison to be more than a little strained.
Story-wise, Kong is quite simple. It transplants the action to the days following the United States' abandonment of the Vietnam conflict, and depicts the exploratory expedition of the titular island, recently discovered thanks to satellite imagery. Here the movie, so controlled in its visual storytelling, might get a little lost in the woods with its human elements. It's not that it doesn't work: Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and company are all perfectly enjoyable. But it runs into the old monster movie dilemma of not quite having enough time for all of its characters. This doesn't make it deficient as a monster movie, but does leave one wanting a little more given its topical setup and superb visuals.
And about that setup: why make a Kong movie so flavored with Vietnam? It is an interesting flavor, to be sure, especially given the relative homogeny of other Kong films. It does also function as a motivating factor for many of the characters, but I don't think it really rises above that. Again, it doesn't mean that the film doesn't work. Kong's answer as to why we love monster movies is that they are just fun. And what we have here is a really fun, funny, spookily beautiful monster mash (with a great soundtrack and score, by the way.) So I say just go see it and enjoy yourself for a while. And anyway it is most certainly better than Beauty and the Beast is looking.
Kong: Skull Island features Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and John C. Reilly, and is rated PG-13 for savage monster beatdowns and some swearsing (mostly from Mr. Jackson, naturally.)
Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
by Chase Harrison