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NPR Arts & Life

'Life' Doesn't Quite Find A Way

"The needs of the many ...": Astronauts Rory (Ryan Reynolds) and David (Jake Gyllenhaal) in <em>Life</em>.
"The needs of the many ...": Astronauts Rory (Ryan Reynolds) and David (Jake Gyllenhaal) in <em>Life</em>.

"Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence," Chief Medical Officer Leonard "Bones" McCoy once lamented. And that was on Star Trek, far and away the most optimistic vision of humanity's spacefaring destiny ever presented onscreen.

Far more prevalent in movies is the sort of better-we-didn't pessimism peddled by Life, a nasty low-Earth-orbit nailbiter that believes those with the Right Stuff were in the wrong line. It's Alien in zero-G. It's Gravity with a hostile --and apparently intelligent — Martian jellyfish. Though the script is by Deadpool scribes Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, and merc-with-a-mouth Ryan Reynolds gets top billing, there's not much intentional humor.

It is, to be kind, an imperfect organism, this movie. But it has a few attributes worth hailing.

For one thing, Life is reasonably accurate in its depiction of the International Space Station, a modular structure with visibly older and newer sections that's been regularly expanded since its launch 19 years ago. The movie is set in some unspecified near-future, when a Martian sample-return mission has come to pass. (Jake Gyllenhaal's character remembers being a kid in school when the shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, so the movie would have to be set close to the present unless the 36-year-old actor is playing a much older character.) Anyway, production designer Nigel Phelps expands the real ISS in a plausible way, conceiving of modules contributed by various nations at different times.

Also, the movie's illusion of microgravity — achieved the old fashioned way, by hanging actors and props on wires that were removed in post-production — is convincing. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa's camera appears unmoored by gravity, too, roaming the station's various compartments as its half-dozen crew members try to figure out how to kill the fast-evolving tentacular terror they picked up in a soil sample from the Red Planet. Best of all, none of the characters have a hoary backstory of the sort that dragged down Gravityjusta little. The irony of the team's exobiologist (British actor/filmmaker Ariyon Bakare) being wheelchair-bound on Earth but as mobile as anybody else in space, goes mostly unremarked, thank goodness.

As in The Martian,NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) all seem to have instituted a strict hotness requirement for long-duration spaceflight, but the actors are an interesting mix: Rounding out the crew are Rebecca Ferguson, who played a resourceful British intelligence agent in the last Mission: Impossible, Olga Dihovichnaya as the mission commander, and Hiroyuki Sanada, who was in Danny Boyle's Sunshine a decade ago — which was a stronger semi-plausible space adventure than this one.

Unfortunately, content follows form here. Life is an unwieldly and modular bolting-together of space-movie cliches vintage and recent: The crew watching helplessly as a hostile blip and a friendly blip intersect on a computer monitor. The instrument panels reflected in a helmet visor. The gross bodily violations. The one-by-one winnowing of the cast.

"The film is a saddening bore," David Bowie sang in "Life on Mars," a tune from a far more optimistic era. It ain't quite as bad as that, but it ain't much.

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