Del reviews ‘Life’

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

“Life” Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. 104 Minutes. Rated R.

Del’s take

If you come away from “Life” with a strong sense of déjà vu, be not afraid. You’ve seen it before.

You saw it with “Alien.” You saw it with “Gravity.” You even saw it with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” “Life” is a 1950s-style science fiction B movie with 21st century special effects and a top-shelf budget and roster of actors. But despite the qualities and resources working in its favor, “Life” fails to generate much heat at the launch pad.

The story is standard-fare sci-fi/horror: A probe delivers soil samples from Mars to a crew aboard the International Space Station. An exobiologist discovers a protozoan-like organism in one of the samples and unwisely revives it. Then, as we have learned from countless sci-fi/horror films, the exobiologist unwisely feeds the organism and watches it grow until the day it abruptly decides glucose solution isn’t very appetizing and something heartier that will stick to its translucent ribs would be a better choice of menus.

There are no McRib sandwiches in outer space.

From there the movie becomes a grim struggle for survival as the astronauts match wits with the strangely resourceful and intelligent “Calvin,” as a schoolgirl has named it in a contest. To say anything about what happens next would spoil the movie for you, so I’ll fall back on my opening line. “You’ve seen it before.”

“Life” falls a smidge below the eye-catching and stomach-churning special effects of “Gravity,” but they’re still darned impressive, from soaring panaromas of the Earth and its landscape circling below to the weirdly unique environment of zero gravity inside the space station. (We even get a short tutorial on pooping in space. That toilet looked mighty small.)

Characters are thinly sketched as the monster mayhem ensues not long out of the gate. Jake Gyllenhaal is Dr. David Jordan, the station physician who seems slightly unhinged by his near record-setting time in space and does not want to return to Earth because a bad experience in Syria soured him on mankind. That moment of revelation is one of the few glimpses we receive of the man behind the doctor’s jumpsuit – and that’s more than what the other characters are given to bare except for station engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), who watches the birth of his child back on Earth via tablet.

Where the movie could have profited from its “Alien” DNA is in tension-building. Because the characters aren’t sufficiently developed and the action hurried onto the screen, it’s hard to care if they live or die. Director Espinosa should have followed Ridley Scott’s example and let us get to know these folks before exposing them to peril.

Some might interpret “Life” as a cautionary tale regarding the hubris of science, and they’d have plenty of ammunition. Again and again, science is portrayed as the rogue operator in this struggle of man vs. nature. But the movie never pursues that metaphor with any gusto. The missteps seem nothing more than means to achieve ends. Otherwise, there’d be no story.

“Life” deserves to be seen in a movie theater for its eye-popping special effects. The story itself is nothing special, and there are fewer thrills and chills than the trailers suggest.

Overall I would give it a grade of B-.

Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

“Kong Skull Island” Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. 1 hour, 58 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Del’s take

King Kong really needs to find a Mrs. Kong, if you know what I mean.

That poor, besotten beast, trapped all alone on Skull Island without the company of a female, has developed a frightening case of blue –

Cough cough cough. Ahem! Sorry about that. I momentarily forgot about this review’s PG rating.

Suffice it to say that in many of the Kong iterations we see a lonely ape the size of  the federal deficit pining for a tiny but beautiful human woman, which ultimately leads to his demise, usually at the trigger finger of a sympathetic but competitive human male who has no intention of sharing his tiny but beautiful human woman with a giant ape, even if the giant ape is a movie star.

You don’t see that in many Plenty of Fish profiles.

In “Kong: Skull Island,” the eighth outing for the sexually frustrated mega-simian, movie fans receive a rehashing of many of the Kong tropes with a few new wrinkles that don’t add anything to the canon. But then the movie’s purpose is not to tread new ground but pave old ground for a sequel.

In “Skull Island” Bill Randa (John Goodman), a functionary in the Monarch organization (which figured into another recent giant creature movie), convinces a senator to fund a trip to Skull Island to look for, well, whatever is there – oil, uranium, or monsters.

Oh, and he needs a military escort.

That brings Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) into the picture, along with his unit of cannon fodder and one young non-com comedian (Thomas Mann). They’re joined by pacifist war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and noted tracker Loki, er, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to complete the lineup.

The group arrives aboard a fleet of helicopters that, after traversing some seriously bad weather that would have folks like you and me clutching air sickness bags like rosaries, reaches the jungle-infested canyons and scenic vistas of Skull Island. Hell immediately breaks lose and does not stop until about a hundred minutes later when the credits roll.

Pacing was off. My impression during the movie was that plot development was moving along too quickly, as if director Vogt-Roberts had taken input from an efficiency expert. Characters were hurriedly sketched, given only a short scene to establish their bonafides and histories, and then it was off to the races.

The script struck me as strangely flat. While the movie offered many funny lines, it missed what I thought were better opportunities for funnier lines. The actors had little to sink their teeth into.

John Goodman’s and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters were straight out of central casting, and as a result their particular branches of the conflict were similarly hackneyed. In fact the Jackson conceit, that of a military fanatic bent on destroying Kong, struck me as unrealistic and at times stupid.

Hiddleston and Larson were good despite the flat script, and Mann, as always, finds a way to inject life into his roles. John C. Reilly was excellent as World War II vet Hank Marlow, and his character provides the only watery-eye potential in the entire movie. Stay to the very end for that.

Many movies these days throw in an Easter egg after the credits, and you’ll need to sit through the entire run-through of credits for “Skull Island” to see which giant monster may figure into the sequel.

Overall I would grade “Skull Island” with a C+. I’ll give it high marks for a decent fight scene and monster mayhem, but low marks for clichéd characters, skimpy characterization, a threadbare script and hurried pacing.

Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.