30 March 2017 | bob-the-movie-man
Life after Gravity
Mankind is on the verge of a major milestone. The "Pilgrim" probe is returning from Mars containing soil samples that might spell the discovery of the first palpable evidence of life beyond earth. Proving that earth scientists are not completely incompetent, the probe is being returned not to earth but to a lab on the International Space Station where strict quarantine can be maintained. This key mission requirement is the responsibility of Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson, "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation"). Supporting her is an international crew including fellow doctor David Harris (Jake Gyllenhaal, "Source Code"), professional astronaut Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds, "Deadpool") and Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), the lead scientist studying the samples. Needless to say, the soil samples yield more promise than Derry could have ever hoped for (or North could have feared). A crisis of growth and death ensues in a manner that fans of "Alien" will be suitably familiar with. Can the crew survive against all the odds?
Jake Gyllenhaal is one of my favourite actors with a raft of quality films in his CV such as "Nightcrawler" and last year's hugely underrated (and almost Oscar-ignored) "Nocturnal Animals". Rebecca Ferguson is also a class act and one of my favourite actresses of the moment. Here they are starring together for the first time and they don't disappoint. Whilst neither gets enough quality screen time to really hammer their roles home, both connect to the audience in different ways: Harris is heading for an ISS endurance record, and starting to mentally disconnect from earthly connections as his body also starts to atrophy. North, with a clear attraction to him, tries to hold both him and everything together with steely determination, while carrying more knowledge of the mission directives than anyone else has.
The supporting ensemble cast also work well, portraying a real mixture of nationalities from the cock-sure American played by Reynolds to the sultry Russian commander Golovkina, played by the lovely Olga Dihovichnaya. A special note should also be added in the margin for one of the most surprising portrayals of a disabled character in a recent film.
Unfortunately the material the actors get to deliver, by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (co-writers of "Deadpool" and "Zombieland") doesn't match their ability. The first 30 minutes or so of the film I found to be totally gripping, but even here some of the dialogue is sufficiently clunky to distract you from the ongoing narrative. Some of the rest of the dialogue becomes head-in-the-hands awful in places: a scene during a de-pressurization episode being particularly painful.
Some dodgy dialogue might be forgivable in an action movie if supported by a strong story. Unfortunately, while the premise of the film is sound (if not original), the story leaps from inconsistency to inconsistency from beginning to end. The writers never seem to settle on whether the 'being' needs oxygen, likes oxygen, likes hot, likes cold, etc. and this lack of credibility distracts from the whole film. While the screenplay delivers some seriously suspenseful moments, and some decent jump scares, this is not satisfactory enough to serve up a cohesive movie meal.
This is not helped by 'bad science'. As I have commented upon before, I'm a physicist by training and unscientific scenes annoy me to distraction. I've had to learn to live with the basics of explosions and other 'noise' in space (something "Star Wars" started 40 years ago, damn those TIE fighters). But there is a scene in "Life" involving an airlock breach that just completely beggars belief, acted out as it is like a stiff breeze on the front at Skegness! (It's almost – (almost) – as bonkers as the 'reactor venting' scene with Chris Pratt in "Passengers".
However, the film has its strong points too. Like "Gravity", this is another special effects triumph with the scenes outside the ISS being gorgeously rendered. "Gravity" was a clear 10/10; this is probably at least a 7, and a reason for seeing the film on the big screen. A key question though is why there wasn't a 3D version of the film released? Heaven knows I'm no fan of 3D, but "Gravity" was one of the few films that was genuinely enhanced by the format: in fact it is currently the only 3D Blu-ray that I own!
In general, the whole film seems a little half-cocked and lacking in its own conviction. You wonder whether the production company (Skydance) got rather cold-feet about the film in releasing it when it did. Yes, "Deadpool" did very well with its February release, but this is a much more suitable film for a summer audience than a release in this post-Oscars doldrums.
In summary, its a moderately entertaining watch, but at heart just another retelling of the old 'something nasty in the woodshed' yarn that we've seen played out countless times before. Here though the swanky setting and special effects are diminished by a lack of credibility and consistency in the storytelling. Redemption was on hand though, for while it was heading for a middling 6* rating, it managed to salvage another star in the final 60 seconds: a memorable movie ending that might prove hard to beat during 2017.
(Please visit bob-the-movie-man.com for the graphical version of this review. Thanks).