Life (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 8; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

My mind reels, horror has appalled me…

Isaiah 21:4a

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One of the astronauts must venture outside the station.        (c) Columbia Pictures

In science fiction there are two approaches to encounters with extraterrestrials—one of wonder and possible benefits to humanity (E.T., Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind and Arrival), or one of violence and horror because the aliens are out to conquer or eat us (War of the Worlds, based on H.G. Wells classic, Alien, Independence Day, and a host of others)

Director Daniel Espinosa, directing from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s script, has chosen the second, more traveled path. The six-member crew will experience a horror akin to that described in Isaiah concerning the news about the fall to invaders of the might city of Babylon—only now the stakes are far higher than an ancient imperial city. Earth itself is at risk.

Like most such films, matters start out calmly and slowly. The scientists aboard the International Space Station orbiting Earth are excited that they have obtained soil samples from a returning Mars probe. Studying a soil sample in a small sealed cubicle, biologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) discovers a one cell life form. Everyone is excited, especially as the form grows into a small multi-celled organism.

“Everyone” also includes the ship’s captain, Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), flight engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), physician Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), and Russian commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichanaya).

News of the discovery causes excitement around the world. A group of grade school children stand in Time Square as they converse with the astronauts. The alien is given the name “Calvin,” apparently after the name of their school. The scientists’ euphoria quickly evaporates when an accident sends the ever-growing creature into a dormant state, and Dr. Derry uses a miniature cattle prod-like instrument to shock it back into life.

Aroused, it attacks the scientist, latching onto his gloved arm, causing him to lose consciousness as it crushes his hand. The creature escapes its containment cubicle and devours the lab’s rat, growing all the larger. There follows a series of deadly encounters, the size and intelligence of the octopus/squid-like monster continuing to increase in size—and the crew cannot look to Earth for help because of damage to their communication equipment.

Capt. North tells the crew that she is not sure if her S.O.S. got through to Earth, and that if they cannot recapture or destroy the creature, she will have to launch them into deep space lest they contaminate their home planet. Thus, all their schemes and struggles become a race against time.

Of course, Alien is the film to which everyone has been comparing this film, mostly to the new film’s detriment. Nonetheless the acting is excellent in it, with a few moments especially moving. The latter includes the crew speaking with the children gathered before a camera in Times Square about their discovery, as well as Sho Murakami’s witnessing and encouraging his wife from space as she gives birth to their child in Japan.

Each crew member possesses both courage and ingenuity, but will these be enough against their formidable enemy? I will leave you to discover this, saying only here that director Espinosa’s horror film follows in the path of what we might call the cautionary tale—such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Fly. The special effects are excellent, with the huge, sprawling space station looking impressive, viewed at times against the starry sky, and at other moments against the cloud-spattered Earth. This is definitely not a film to see if you’re feeling down in the dumps—nor, because of its visual spectacle, on a small screen.

This review with a set of questions will be in the April 2017 issue of VP.

Gravity (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our Content Adviserories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star Rating (1-5): 4.5

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Astronauts Dr. Ryan Jones and Mission Commander Mat Kowalski are stranded in space when debris destroys their space shuttle.
(c) 2013 Warner brothers

 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

            Psalm 31:2-5

We see no evidence in this suspenseful space film that Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a believer, but if she were, the above words of the psalmist might well have been her prayer. A medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, she is space suited up and teamed with another astronaut repairing a device on the Hubble telescope’s extended arm while the mission commander, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), is enjoying using a thruster pack to propel himself around. This being his last mission, he regrets that he will fall short by a few hours of beating the space walk record of a Russian cosmonaut. The three are chatting with each other and Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris, a delightful bit of voice casting because he was one of the stars of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13), Matt repeating an old astronaut joke, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” A few minutes later this turns out to be prophetic when Houston sends an emergency warning that a Russian station has blown up, the debris hurtling their way at 55,000 mph.  When Ryan is slow to respond to Matt’s command to stop her work and reboard their station, he yells at her to get moving. By then jagged bits and pieces of the remains of the Russian station are flying by them.

Thus, after a marvelous single shot scene lasting about 13 minutes, the roller coaster sequence begins in which the two struggle in zero gravity, first to connect with each other, and then to decide what to do when their station is destroyed, killing all aboard. The third astronaut out working with them also is killed. Ryan, already struggling with the nausea of motion sickness, has trouble when the long cargo arm of the station breaks loose, swinging her wildly around and around and around. When she extricates herself from it, she keeps spinning out of control. Thanks to the calmness of Matt, she overcomes her momentary panic, and at last he is able to connect with her. They are running low on oxygen, so he decides they must head for the Russian International Space Station which should have a shuttle to transport them safely back to earth. There follows a series of mini-disasters that could be regarded as confirmation of Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Their contact with Mission Control is severed, so they are completely on their own.

This is one film that truly deserves that overworked expletive “Awesome!” Director Alfonso Cuarón, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, as well as his co-script writer son Jonas, has produced a variation of the old survival film worthy of placing alongside of Cast Away and Life of Pi. And not since t he latter film and Avatar has 3-D photography been used so effectively—and is so essential to fully experiencing the film. For once 3-D is not a financial rip off to increase a film’s profits.

Thus Gravity is not a film to wait for until it comes out on DVD in order to save a few bucks. You owe it to yourself to see it on a large screen, with the 3-D really bringing you into the action. When Matt reaches out for a special wrench or nut that is floating toward you, you have to stifle the urge to dodge the gloved hand. There are spectacular, glorious shots of the earth and stars, but equally effective are the close ups of Sandra Bullock’s face, which might remind film buffs of the almost exclusive use of such close ups in Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ms. Bullock is fully up to the challenge of conveying through her facial expressions the gamut of emotions, ranging from nausea, fear, and near panic to relief and determination to survive. The camera at times seamlessly moves from the external or third person POV into her helmet so that we see her in extreme close up, and then it swivels so that we are sharing her perspective on her predicament. She also achieves the almost ballet-like motions of a dancer in the sequence in which, shedding her bulky space suit, she floats her way through a long corridor of a space shuttle. With the least amount of dialogue of any of her films, it is through her facial expressions and the movements—or lack of them when during her period of despair she assumes a fetal position –that she reveals what a consummate actress she is. If you appreciated Tom Hank’s solo feat in Castaway, you are sure to love her performance in this masterful film.

We are reminded at the beginning of the film that nothing can be heard in space, where there is no atmosphere to convey the sound. This makes the sound of Ryan’s labored breathing all the more effective, reminding us that her oxygen is in short supply. Her struggle to reach the ISS, and from there the even more distant Chinese space station, becomes an epic journey of the mind and spirit as well as of the body, a testament of human pluck and perseverance. Steven Price’s musical soundtrack stops at just the right moments so that the silence of space is emphasized all the more.

From one standpoint the coldness and indifference of space might lead to an atheistic outlook—what difference does it make if these two humans live or die out there almost four hundred miles from home? On the other hand, for those who believe, to quote from William Cowper’s hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform,” Ryan’s moment of hallucination might be the modern equivalent of Joseph’s life saving dreams early on in the Gospel of Matthew. Filled with despair at one point in the Chinese station so that she is resigned to death, Ryan turns down the oxygen to hasten the inevitable. But her hallucination awakens her to the clue for the possibility of survival that she had not thought of before, and she springs into action. Scriptures in many places suggest that dreams or hallucinations at times have an external, as well as an internal, source. Of course, there is no way to prove this, but then isn’t that what faith is all about? As Hebrews 11:1 puts it, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Again, I urge you not to put off seeing this film, one that will no doubt be up for multiple awards, from Best Actress to all of the technical awards that the Motion Picture Academy offers. “Awesome!” really does sum up this film.

 The full version of this review, including a set of 9 discussion questions, will be in the November 2013 issue of the journal Visual Parables, available to subscribers near the end of October.