LIFE. Offered a movie combining a screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, of Deadpool (2016) and Zombieland (2009), and the direction of Daniel Espinosa (Safe House, 2012), one would not necessarily expect that movie to be dark, scary or at times meditative. Nor could one be faulted for being surprised that that movie, ultimately a science fiction horror thing, would be peopled by flawed, complex characters acted with depth and nuance.
At least I wasn't expecting any of those things. I figured Life would be entertaining and well crafted enough, which it is, but it also turns out to be much more.
The movie opens in the midst of a dangerous salvage/rescue effort aboard the International Space Station (sometime in the near future?). An unmanned capsule headed back to Earth after a successful mission to Mars has been knocked off course by debris. ISS ship's engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) must spacewalk to operate a giant mechanical claw and catch the Mars capsule as it careens past. The ultimate goal is to retrieve samples of Martian soil aboard the craft, upon which science officer Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) will then perform a series of tests to determine the viability of life — past, present or future — on the Red Planet. These early efforts are resoundingly successful: Adams snags the capsule, Derry starts testing and within days a new life form grows rapidly in his laboratory. The people of Earth are understandably excited. After an oversight causes a small leak in the lab's quarantine box, though, the alien being (dubbed Calvin by some lucky elementary school students) goes into hibernation. When Derry attempts to rouse it with electrical current, the situation aboard the space station immediately moves from happily hopeful to desperate, and degrades from there.
Some detractors will likely complain that Life merely rips-off Alien (1979) — not a completely baseless accusation but an unfair one. There are certainly echoes of that movie here but it becomes clear in context that they are intentional. One could call it homage, or cite that old T.S. Eliot line — if you're going to steal, you might as well steal big and from the best. Regardless, Reese and Wernick's screenplay takes elements from Alien, but uses them as an opportunity to explore other themes and to push their story in a different direction. Using the frame of a claustrophobic science fiction thriller, they introduce complex personal motives that add a significant dimension to the work. Derry, wheelchair-bound from childhood, is freed by zero gravity and sees in his newly discovered life-form great possibilities for human advancement. His passion for scientific discovery (and the boundless hope attending it) creates dangerous lapses in his methodology. He becomes a well-intentioned zealot and it may destroy them all. The station's medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) holds the record for most consecutive days spent in space. It's a significant accomplishment on its own merits and because it signals Jordan's desire to escape from something on his home planet.
While examining the inner lives of its characters, Life also cleverly reflects on some of its prominent genre identifiers. It is, at least in part, a monster movie after all, and one of the few to address the notion that the villain of the piece is not motivated by hate or spite, but merely by self-interest. The hatefulness of its intent is entirely a product of human projection (this is an idea that has long fascinated me about monster movies, but is better and more dramatically articulated in the movie than I've ever managed).
The depth and intention of the writing in Life, the care with which the actors take on their roles and the deftness of Espinosa's direction work in concert to produce something greater, more fun and more thoughtful than I had anticipated. R. 103m. BROADWAY, MCKINLEYVILLE, FORTUNA
CHIPS, on the other hand, gave me almost exactly what I expected of it and this is not a bad thing. Written and directed by and starring Dax Shepard (Hit & Run, 2012, Mr. Kristen Bell), it subverts the hospital-food TV series of the late 1970s, recasting it as a hard-R action comedy and a showcase for motorcycle chases.
Jon Baker (Shepard) is a former motocross star with a broken body, a monster pill habit and a marriage in trouble. His only hope of mending the tatters of his life lies in graduating from the California Highway Patrol academy and distinguishing himself professionally. His opportunity to do so comes in the form of a series of armed robberies that may involve officers of the CHP. He is partnered with Frank Poncherello (Michael Pena), which is actually a manufactured identity for an FBI agent investigating the robberies undercover. "Ponch" brings his own set of peculiarities to the partnership, namely sex addiction, unaddressed homophobia and ego that outstrips his skills on a motorcycle.
It should be said that CHIPS, despite some strong, dark thematic elements, clearly aims at mainstream success. As a result, it never ventures as deep into that darkness as I might like. But it is consistently fun and funny, and the two leads have an entertaining, damaged-goods dynamic. Shepard (a well-known gear head in his own right) and his technical team have found some innovative ways to photograph motorcycle chases, and their passion comes through in the final product. Vincent D'Onofrio, Jane Kaczmarek, Kristen Bell and Adam Brody appear in satisfying supporting roles. R. 100m. BROADWAY, MCKINLEYVILLE.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
AFTER THE STORM. A has-been author, gambler and private eye tries to bond with his son after the death of his own father. Starring Hiroshi Abe and Yoko Maki. NR. 117m. MINIPLEX.
THE BOSS BABY. Fresh from SNL, Alec Baldwin voices another business-minded infant in this animated comedy about corporate intrigue. With Steve Buscemi. PG. 97m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
DONALD CRIED. Back in his hometown after the death of his grandmother, an unhappy man spends the day with his awkward, possibly unhinged childhood friend. NR. 88m. BROADWAY.
GHOST IN THE SHELL. Live-action manga adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese proto-cyborg because Emma Stone and Tilda Swinton were busy. PG13. 106m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
JULIETA. Director Pedro Almodóvar's film about a woman (Emma Suarez) reflecting on her life and her relationship with her estranged daughter. R. 99m. MINOR.
MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI. Claymation story about an orphan who finds friendship and family among other children at a foster home. PG13. 70m. MINIPLEX.
THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984). The fairytale fantasy with the big flying dog thing. PG. 102m. BROADWAY.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. The cast, style and scale are impressive, but the moody darkness and slow pacing of this live-action/CG fairytale reboot seems tailored for nostalgic grownups more than kids. Starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. PG13. 100m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
GET OUT. Daniel Kaluuya stars as a young African American man visiting his white girlfriend's (Allison Williams) family in this atmospheric and original horror movie that is as artistically accomplished as it is dire in its allegory of American racism. R. 103m. BROADWAY, MINOR.
KEDI. In Istanbul, a fascinating, varied city in the grip of totalitarianism, street cats and humans make room for each other with mutual respect and kindness. This hopeful and heartening documentary suggest there's much to be gained from inclusion. NR. 80m. MINIPLEX.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND. A stellar cast (Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston) and visual effects bring the action and the lush, tropical setting to life even when the story droops a bit. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
LOGAN. Hugh Jackman and director James Mangold give Wolverine a send-off with exciting, visceral action and emotional depth. With Patrick Stewart as the ailing Professor X and a revelatory performance by Dafne Keen as a sharp-clawed little girl on the run. R. 135m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
POWER RANGERS. An alien ship bestows super powers on a group of high school kids who must then save the world from an emo villainess. PG. 106m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE SHACK. A grieving father (Sam Worthington) receives a mysterious invitation and goes on a magical sojourn. With Octavia Spencer. PG13. 132m. BROADWAY.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill