In Life, the plot could have been poignant: aboard the International Space Station, a disabled scientist, played by Ariyon Bakare, successfully re-animates a single cell found in Martian soil samples. His judgement is clouded by his personal investment: the fast-growing organism could replace stem cells as the new ‘cure for the incurable’, including for his own paralysed legs.
Much technobabble and breaching of scientific procedure later, the payoff of the team’s excitement (and that of the world below) is being trapped in the station with a hostile, carnivorous and indestructible alien that must be prevented at all costs from reaching Earth.
The trouble is, you wouldn’t guess from the promotional material that the plot stems from Bakare’s character’s actions – because he doesn’t feature in it.
Instead, alongside stars Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler, Nocturnal Animals) and Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen), the poster depicts Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool), who has a tenth of the lines and a single function in the first half hour. He doesn’t even get the full dignity of the fate we predicted for him.
The other major problem is that this premise, which could have been the springboard for some incisive exploration of the dangers of scientific hubris, is overtaken by the utterly implausible behaviour of those trying to contain the danger.
At every crisis, the team (whose discipline and cool-headedness under pressure is supposed to be shown by the opening sequence) descends into panicky shouted arguments. Our ordeal could have been made an hour shorter by the mission commander taking a more sensible decision during a spacewalk. And the denouement is catalysed by a decision that should surely never have been allowed past mission control.
It’s difficult to properly assess the acting, because there’s so little dialogue involved. Gyllenhaal’s reading from a strangely nihilistic children’s book might be the most words spoken in one go in the entire film. Instead we are subjected to thunderous musical cues and limp visual nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien.
The visuals themselves are, of course, flawless, but stunning effects are so standard now that it shouldn’t still be acceptable to substitute them for meaningful plot or character development.
The Martian, improbably named Calvin, develops strikingly from phallic fungal growth to bewitchingly beautiful plant-creature to malevolent tentacled monster. Its distinguishing feature is its cellular versatility, necessitating a repeated warning that ‘it’s clever, and it’s learning’. Yet apart from its finding an innovative use for an electrical wand, there’s little evidence of dazzling intellect in this Martian: it manages to be repeatedly thwarted by doors, airlocks and simple bait traps. Then again, perhaps it just doesn’t need to be too cunning when its adversaries’ attempts to combat it are so monumentally stupid.
An hour of post-mortem discussion did conclude that the film’s message was more noble than its execution: the dereliction of our collective scientific responsibilities, the headlong dive into innovation without identifying possible costs as well as gains, can mean that the actions of an individual do have repercussions for the entire species.
But the crushing failures of Life to foreground that message, or to do anything original with the legacy of its cinematic forebears, mean it’s unlikely to contribute anything worthwhile to that discussion.
To put it more succinctly, for my co-reviewer it was ‘possibly the worst film I’ve seen in all my 60 years’.
|What||Life film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
24 Mar 17 – 12 Apr 17, times vary
|Price||£determined by cinema|