MOVIE BUFF-ET: Well-made yet unoriginal “Life” too predictable for its own good

Jake Gyllenhaal in “Life” / Courtesy

Can a movie be suspenseful, scary, exciting, and yet still be predictable?

Until watching the sci-fi thriller “Life,” I would have said no. However, that was the exact impression the movie left on me.

If films like “The Blob,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and particularly “Alien” and its sequels and prequel had never been made, director Daniel Espinosa’s “Life” might be heralded as the hot movie to see.

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Espinosa spins a solid if not somewhat intriguing tale of a multinational space-station crew discovering a living, single-cell organism in a soil sample taken a space probe to Mars. The script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick supplies all too familiar characters struggling over issues that the discovery of extraterrestrial life presents to them while manning a space station 22,000 miles above the Earth.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson are the co-leads as the senior medical officer Dr. David Jordan and the quarantine officer Dr. Miranda North respectively, but each member of the international crew has their moment to shine while studying the organism that begins to grow exponentially when British biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) introduces glucose to its diet. The extraterrestrial is eventually named Calvin by a class of American school children, who win contest giving them the distinguished honor.

As Calvin continues to grow he begins to resemble a cross between a translucent jellyfish and a sea star. Calvin’s very strong, curious, and hungry. North notes that his tissue is all muscle, brain, and eye at the same time.

A power outage throws Calvin into stasis, prompting Derry to attempt to revive the alien with electric shock, and in sure Frankenstein fashion, everything goes awry when the creature receives the shock, putting the entire crew, which includes intrepid pilot Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds), engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and commander Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) into extreme danger.

Calvin reawakens agitated and escapes containment, and while doing so learns that humans are quite tasty and evidently very nutritious. Every time Calvin feeds, he grows bigger, faster, and smarter.

The film is slickly made, offering a pseudo-realistic look at life aboard a satellite, unlike the sci-fi fantasy of the Star Wars, Star Trek or even the Alien franchises, which feature fantastic worlds and humans venturing into to deep space.

The film’s setting is more akin to “Gravity,” and attempts to mine some of the same breathless wonder that director Alfonso Cuarón achieved in his 2013 cinematic gem. And it does to a degree. There is a great looking space-walk scene featuring Dihovichnaya that is exciting, but like so much of the rest of the movie, it just reminded me of more original films with similar scenes.

The climax might be wickedly entertaining if it weren’t so telegraphed. Anyone familiar with old TV shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” or just he concept of irony will know immediately what’s coming. Maybe, that supposed to be part of the fun?

Technically the movie is extremely well crafted. The performances across the board are very good, and the film’s pace, tone, setting work well. The fact that Espinosa is able to create some tension and scares with such a formulaic script means he’s a director worth watching in the future, but as for “Life,” its unoriginality renders their work mundane and forgettable.

Grade: C+

Classic Corner

Bonnie and Clyde

In a very real sense, there are movies made before “Bonnie and Clyde” and movies made after the 1967 film directed by Arthur Miller.

While Hollywood’s Production or Hays Code, which governed the type of action, behavior, and language used in motion pictures, had been in decline since the mid 1950s, “Bonnie and Clyde,” produced by and starring Warren Beatty, drew an undeniable line in the sand by becoming a box-office hit that Hollywood wouldn’t ignore.

Viewed through today’s eyes, the film might be seen tame, but its frank depiction of sexual situations and the graphic nature of the violence depicted stood out upon release. The film’s climax, which featured Bonnie and Clyde being ambushed by law enforcement, was one of the most violent scenes depicted on film at the time thanks to the use of squibs.

Squibs are special-effect devices equipped with a very small explosive charge connected to a bladder of fake blood. Hidden under the clothing of an actor, the detonation of a squib graphically mimicked gunshot wounds. Prior to Penn’s film, there was some blood depicted in gun battles in Hollywood pictures, but not of the explosive variety that became common very quickly after the movie’s release.

The film tells a condensed version of the story of gangsters Clyde Barrow (Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and their gang who pulled off a series of heists and bank robberies in the early 1930s. The film offered a romantic but also brutal view of crime that Hollywood had all but shunned since the introduction of the Production or Hays code in 1934. Audiences not only found the concoction entertaining but seductive, and producers and directors were more than willing to feed that appetite.

Though films had already become more daring in the type of material presented to audiences, the financial success of “Bonnie and Clyde” is seen as the tipping point for the introduction of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system in 1968. The MPAA’s rating system is still in place today.

The movie made a star out of Dunaway, whose racy and tough depiction of Bonnie Parker was somewhat of a landmark at the time. It prompted scores of copycats in lesser films throughout the next decade.

Gene Hackman also gained notice playing Clyde’s even crazier brother Bubba, and like Dunaway he became a major star in the 1970s.

Michael J. Pollard is unforgettable as the dimwitted getaway driver C.W. Moss, but its Estelle Parsons as Blanche, Bubba Barrow’s wife, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

In all the film was nominated for 10 Oscars, including for all the major categories, but it won only one other Oscar for Burnett Guffey’s cinematography.