Life almost finds a way

Everyone wants to come up with an original idea for a movie, but good execution can usually make up for a lack of innovation. After all, many genre classics came from following popular trends or aping the revolutionary works that came before them. This is the problem facing Life, a film that does so much well that it’s flaws tend to hold it back further from greatness.

One part Gravity and one part Alien, Life is a horror film that tries to pair fantastical horrors like murderous extra terrestrials, with the real threats of living in space. The film’s environment is a living character, with corridors darkened by the blackness of space and the constant threat of losing oxygen creating a palpable tension throughout most of the film. Earlier scenes help illustrate the strenuous mental and environmental challenges that astronauts face, giving an early sense that even routine things could place the crew further at risk. The crew behind the film seems to have paid close attention to making sure the space details were as accurate as possible, and their efforts add a lot to films sense of isolation and tension.

Life is often at its best when it focuses in on the science part of science fiction, thanks in part to its efforts to ground the films creature (lovingly dubbed “Calvin”). The first act explores the finding of biological material from the dirt on mars, uncovering an organism and exploring the environmental factors that such a creature needs to live in. The staging of these scenes help the audience and cast of the film learn about Calvin at the same time, heightening the intrigue surrounding the creature, and the film benefits from taking time to explore the biology behind Calvin. Once things take a dangerous turn for the worst, the film calls back to these early moments of learning how Calvin survives to help ground it with some rules that add a semblance of realism to even something as fantastical as alien terrors.

With so much of the film hinges on its portrayal of Calvin, it’s the strong CGI that ultimately holds Life’s stronger elements together. Calvin is beautifully realized, with each different form animating differently enough to distinguish them, but share small   Traits between the forms to Get a real sense of progression. The design also benefits from several sources, such as aquatic life and a few influences from other popular alien films, that help Calvin stand out from similar creatures. The space effects hold up fine as well, but Life is first and foremost a creature feature, and the effort put into the effects reflects this accurately.

Sadly, the cast stuck with Calvin aren’t able to stand up to the same level of quality. No one necessarily delivers a bad performance, but the cast never gets the chance to break out of their cliche’d roles. Ryan Reynolds once again plays a charming smartass, Jake Gyellenhall is intense throughout, while the rest of the cast serves only as fodder for Calvin. The situation they are in is interesting, as is their alien antagonist, but nothing the cast gives ever matches this. What results is there not much to attach yourself to emotionally, making the deaths feel less tragic, and it ultimately harder to be worried for anyone’s fate.

These problems with the cast are only amplified when paired with Life’s biggest issue, it’s script. For all the attention and detail the films script gives Calvin and the space details, there’s little in the way of memorable dialogue or surprising twists. Outside of one twist death early on, it’s easy to predict which characters are going to bite it, and often in what order. Further hindering the film is the lack of explanation towards Calvin in the second half, with the script never explaining the creatures actions, likely holding out for a sequel to explain major plot points. This not only is lazy writing, but it ends up hurting the film’s best element, Calvin, by switching from a grounded creature to a nondescript threat that does whatever the writers want it to.

Life could have been another Source Code or 10 Cloverfield Lane, genre films whose strong production aspect help ignore the familiarity inherent in their plots. But such things require a film fire on all cylinders, rather then rest on its few achievements. Wether it’s the barebones characters, or the script lacking in surprise or intrigue, Life sadly misses the praise it clearly thinks it deserves. But it can still be an enjoyable Creature Feature that’s not devoid of entertainment, even if it’s unlikely to grow on you over time.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 7 Asshole Calvins out of 10

The Founder: A Quality Imitation of Better Films

Being a winner, arguably, is one of the biggest lessons our society emphasizes.  In the wake of the 2016 election, being right was shown to be less important then being more popular, but this was hardly the first example. The Founder,  for instancelooks to explore the real history of the McDonalds corporations rise to infamy, and the shady business deals that ended up screwing over the men responsible for everything. But while it’s by no means a poorly made film, it lacks the artistry and detail to elevate the picture above workmanlike quality.

Much like other films detailing the early days of now famous inventions, The Founder gets a lot of mileage from viewing a pre-fast food era, with much of the films first act showing how slow and aggravating the idea of eating out was. Once we are finally introduced to McDonalds, the film does slow down to deliver a kind of history lesson on the McDonalds brothers’ first location, taking time to show the process by which they thought up the now famous speedy delivery method. You gain an appreciation for what made McDonalds so revolutionary, as the film examines the cultural wave that the fast food industry made at the time. And unlike other films that glamorize their subjects, The Founder smartly details the events that showed why the quality of the food went down so dramatically, directly pointing fingers at Ray Croc and providing a protaganist that we can both identify with and despise.

Speaking of Ray Croc, The Founder is undoubtedly Michael Keaton’s film, as most of the films strengths come off of his strong leading performance. His portrayal of Ray Croc provides a driven man that works hard to achieve his dreams, while simultaneously showing his lack of empathy towards others, and the emphasis Croc placed on succeeding above all else. It’s hard to not look at Croc’s actions and feel inspired to work harder yourself, even as the film leaves you questioning what you would do in his shoes. Even with a script in desperate need of punching up, Keaton delivers lines that can be both inspiring and utterly despicable, delivering a character that will leave audiences questioning what they would have done were they in Ray’s shoes.

But while Keaton’s performance helps keep the film interesting, theres very little else to praise. The film is just so utterly average, never aspiring to be better, but not so bad that it can’t be recommended. As previously mentioned, the script lacks any memorable lines, leaving characters stuck saying predictable lines, and failing to keep the audience guessing as to what will happen next. The pacing is all over the place, with a second act that moves at a snails pace, but sadly rushes through the most interesting part at the end, namely the legal battle between Croc and the McDonald brothers. The film never tries to do anything interesting with the cinematography, and the score is likewise unmemorable. For a film with so much going on, its a shame that theres so little to say outside of how good Keaton is, serving only to show how inferior the rest of the film is.

The other actors don’t offer much else to the film either, say for the stock roles in which the script requires of them. The brothers are well acted by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, but gives them so little screen time that they eventually become absentee factors in the films drama, serving to undercut their importance in the film, and hurting the betrayal they undergo towards the end of the film. With so little involvement in the film or with Ray Croc, the audience never gets the sense that they did everything they could to control Ray, and ultimately had the loss of their company coming. Worse off are the female leads in the film, With Laura Dern’s role as Ray’s wife doing nothing more then looking sad and sitting in their house, in a thankless role that makes her character come off as nothing more then another hurdle for Croc to overcome. Likewise, Linda Cardellini’s Joan Smith is given a bit more to do (showing how she was responsible for McDonald’s powdered milkshakes that helped earn millions), but is emphasized more as a prize for Ray to get at the end, and an upgrade for him to take once he’s discarded his current wife. For all the time Keaton and Cardellini’s characters spend on screen, that he divorces his wife as an afterthought and we only see Joan Smith once more as a callback undercuts their characters, as well as their importance in Ray’s life.

The Founder is at it’s best when focusing on the founder himself, and the steps he took to owning the McDonalds corporation. While some of those steps may take too long, and there aren’t good enough supporting characters to act alongside, most of the film gets by through Michael Keaton’s electric performance. This is the best example recently of a film propelled through its lead star, becoming as much a film showcasing Keaton’s acting talents as it is about the McDonalds scandal. but much like the fast food it focuses on, there’s not enough here to recommend going out to see, and is better viewed at home once its a bit cheaper. Just be sure to not super size your expectations.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 7 Burgers I’m Now Craving out of 10