Life is not a Venom prequel. It’s not. Stop it. There are vague similarities between the alien lifeform in this film and the Klyntarian symbiote made famous by Marvel’s Spider-Man comics, but it ends there. Just because this is a Sony film and Sony also holds the rights to Spider-Man and his cast of supporting characters and villains, some people let their overactive imaginations get away from them and then convinced themselves and others they were onto something. No. Shhhh.
But here’s what Life is. Life is a science-fiction/horror film from a burgeoning director in the form of Daniel Espinoza and starring a cast that’s equal parts talent and name-value. It’s also a stylish, atmospheric thriller that’s tonally reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien, while distancing itself from that and other space stories enough to establish and maintain its own identity.
It’s got to be tough being the first alien-centered film to come along after the instant classic (and best alien movie in many, many years – probably even several decades) that we got towards the end of 2016 in the form of Arrival. Fortunately, while – much like Arrival – Life takes a lower-key approach to science-fiction storytelling than your typical action-adventure shootout, there are also plenty of exciting moments and rushes of adrenaline to be found throughout the course of the movie. And there are surprises to be discovered, as well, as the filmmakers play with conventions and zig when you are likely expecting a zag. The running time clocks in at approximately one-hour-and-forty-five minutes, but (for me, at least), it flew by and felt closer to an hour, flat. I was gripped by the twists, thrills, and events playing out on-screen and that’s really all I should need to say about the film. About any film, really.
But you know me.
I wasn’t actually sure what film I was going to see, tonight, until this past Tuesday, or so. I wanted to feel like I could expect something good out of Life before choosing it over the more likely clickbait, Power Rangers. The Rotten Tomatoes score came in strong, but I had a feeling even before that that the film would be a strong one, simply because of the presence of one person: Jake Gyllenhaal. There’s undeniably no questioning the man’s talent, but – more than that – I’ve paid attention to his choice of projects, over the years. He never opts to star in a film unless it has something interesting going on. If he’s listed in the cast, then one can probably be confident that the film will be a good one. I’ve been somewhat critical of him in the past because I want to see him have a little more fun and choose some films that aren’t quite as heavy as what he tends to gravitate towards, but he’s a grown man and can do as he pleases. It’s obviously working out well for him, anyway, so it really doesn’t matter what I want. Having said that, Life is exactly the kind of film that I’ve been wanting to see him in: solid with subtext, but also containing a substantial helping of escapism. And I thoroughly enjoyed Gyllenhaal and the rest of the cast as they helped drive home exactly what astronauts/cosmonauts/whatever-else-you-want-to-call-space-explorers sacrifice for nothing other than the pursuit of discovery and knowledge, only to have that pursuit turn on them in the worst possible way.
This film isn’t as provocative as something like Arrival but, beyond working as an excellent locked-box science-fiction thriller, it also functions pretty nicely as an explosive metaphor for . . . well . . . .life. The gut instinct of every living creature is to simply live for as long as possible. We can accomplish nothing else – be it a personal goal or a biological imperative – if we aren’t alive. The alien creature in this film is not spitefully malicious. It’s not inherently evil. It’s simply trying to survive. As are our protagonists. It’s simple and effective storytelling. And it’s all show-not-tell, which is exactly what this type (and really any type) of film needs to be.
There’s an element of clichéd storytelling as we get further into the narrative and begin to approach the climax but, by that point, the film has built up so much good will with all of it’s other innovative ideas and set pieces that it doesn’t really matter. Plus, as clichéd as this one, single, solitary aspect of the tale may be, it’s also organic, natural, and believable. I will take an honestly-framed cliché over a forced and contrived surprise, any day.
While Life isn’t a soul-searching cinematic masterpiece such as the one that the world is still coming down from after seeing Arrival, it is a smart, sophisticated, sleek little film that enthralls and entertains from beginning to end. There are a lot of genuinely good movies out in theaters, right now ( with something for everyone), and Life is just the latest to come along. So, put Venom out of your mind, head out to your local cinema, and give Life a chance to exist on its own terms. If you jettison your preconceived notions, you never know what you’re going to get. And isn’t that what makes life so exciting?
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