Reviews: ‘Life’ is thrilling sci-fi, ‘Song to Song’ is painfully pretentious

April 24, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Life' & 'Song to Song' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Two star-studded flicks hit movie theaters this weekend.

Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal star in Daniel Espinosa’s sci-fi horror flick “Life,” while Ryan Gosling and Natalie Portman star in Terrence Malick’s exploration of indie music in “Song to Song.”

Which movie is worth your time?

Time for a double review.


A team of scientists conducts research aboard the International Space Station. There’s David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a jaded ex-military doctor relieved to escape mankind’s warfare; Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), a CDC quarantine expert; Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), a quipping engineer; Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), who’s got a pregnant wife back home; Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), battling two paralyzed legs; and Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), the Russian commander.

During their mission, they collect soil samples from Mars and discover the first signs of alien life. Fostering its growth aboard the space station, they name the microscopic organism Calvin and learn that it rapidly evolves under the right conditions. Unfortunately, Cal is every bit as deadly as HAL (“2001”). In fact, he’s responsible for causing the extinction of all other life on Mars, so when the creature starts wreaking havoc on the ship, the endangered astronauts must fight for survival.

If you loved Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), you’ll recognize much of Daniel Espinosa’s “Life,” which borrows a lot from Scott’s masterful science “friction,” from the kerning of the opening credit font, to the claustrophobic extraterrestrial settings, to the squeamish shocks of bodily penetration by aliens. Thus, “Life” features a similar slow-burn setup before a shocking catalyst launches a classic “monster in the house” construct where the character needs are primal — it’s a basic fight for human survival.

To steal a phrase: “In space, no one can hear you scream,” but everyone can appreciate your homage.

Still, despite all these similarities, “Life” never bogs down in its derivative nature. Quite the contrary: it feels fresh and alive, slicing and dicing us with panic-inducing intensity. Much of the credit goes to Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the screenwriting duo behind “Zombieland” (2009) and “Deadpool” (2016), proving that few writers can breathe new “life” into worn genres like these two risk takers.

Each time the exercise borders on becoming repetitive or silly, the script offers some truly shocking twists, both in the manner of character demises and in the far-reaching consequences of the Act Three resolution. Along the way, they feed some killer dialogue to their “Deadpool” star Ryan Reynolds, who serves as the comic relief in the tradition of Bill Paxton in “Aliens” (Rest In Peace).

While Reynolds worked with the same writers in “Deadpool,” he also worked with the same director in “Safe House” (2012). It’s mere coincidence the filmmaker shares a name with ex-Nats infielder Danny Espinosa, but he’s an intimidating cinematic pitcher as we the audience step up to the plate.

Nodding to his catcher — cinematographer Seamus McGarvey — Espinosa first baits us with change-ups, lulling us into complacency with engrossing wide shots of the vast expanses of space. Shot at the same Shepperton Studios in London where Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director for “Gravity” (2013), “Life” showcases similarly impressive long-takes of weightless astronauts floating through the ship.

Suddenly, Espinosa fires fastballs as the alien cuts loose, creating jump-scares that make us jolt back like high-and-tight pitches aimed at our batting helmets. Composer Jon Ekstrand keeps us unsettled with eerie, ethereal music between pitches, while the tight frames of claustrophobic interiors keep us trapped in the batter’s box, unable to escape the CGI creature that mutates like “The Thing” (1982). Look for the P.O.V. shots from the alien’s liquid perspective, which is daring for sure, but very weird.

Finally, Espinosa strikes us out with a curveball final twist. We won’t spoil the surprise, but it’s pulled off with deceptive cuts by co-editors Frances Parker and Mary Jo Markey, who get the last laugh as Espinosa pulls into a chilling high angle where we the audience know more than the folks on-screen.

In the end, “Life” doesn’t do anything terribly new, but it’s a welcome addition to the genre. It’s a riveting 103-minute roller coaster at the movie theater, an experience that’s worth seeing on the biggest screen possible. (It was visually arresting in IMAX at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum.) So as we anxiously await Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant,” it’s nice to know there’s “life” elsewhere.


‘Song to Song’

Speaking of “Alien: Covenant,” Michael Fassbender will soon return as the android David that he first played in “Prometheus” (2012). But first, he stars in an arthouse film where the humans might as well be androids: lifeless figures that wander around, pontificating to themselves but signifying nothing.

Set in the burgeoning art community of Austin, Texas, Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song” follows a wily music producer (Fassbender) who recruits aspiring artists, Faye (Rooney Mara), BV (Ryan Gosling) and Rhonda (Natalie Portman), entangling them into love triangles of sex, ambition and betrayal.

That plot summary is extremely generous. In truth, nothing even remotely happens in this movie.

Of course, we should expect that by now from Malick, who has moved into fractured mood pieces in the three films since “The Tree of Life” (2011). Yet his legacy of masterpieces — “Badlands” (1973), “Days of Heaven” (1978), “The Thin Red Line” (1998) — has earned him the clout to land a dream cast.

Here, Fassbender bounces around in the sand like an ape; Portman seduces with bleached blonde hair and Daisy Dukes; Gosling plays piano like “La La Land;” Mara stares into the distance behind her guitar; Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter and Val Kilmer randomly appear then disappear; and Christian Bale is left on the cutting room floor (a favor). While these stars offer flourishes of improvisation, their collective talents are ultimately wasted by the script’s lack of any tangible character arcs.

Even more frustrating is how little Malick actually cares to explore music. Sure, we occasionally drop backstage at Austin music festivals for cameos by Patti Smith, Flea and Iggy Pop. But after watching the film, we don’t feel any closer to understanding life as a musician than we do life as a porn star. Surely, the same amount of womanizing happens — at least that’s what’s depicted here by Malick.

Shot in his hometown, perhaps Malick is going for a “city symphony” of sorts, turning himself into his own “Man with a Movie Camera” like Dziga Vertov’s silent masterpiece. But that was a documentary. This is supposed to be a narrative film, and sadly, Malick has lost all control (and desire) of a narrative.

These days, he’s given up even attempting story structure. Fractured narratives can be refreshing if they’re pulled off properly, from “Citizen Kane” to “All About Eve,” “Pulp Fiction” to “Memento,” but you’ve got to give us something to hang the story upon. So while this auteur has reached transcendent heights as Malick the Director, he desperately needs to get back to basics as Malick the Screenwriter.

To be clear: This reviewer adores filmmakers who break the mold to attempt something different, but not at the expense of the audience. I also have long considered myself a fan of Malick’s previous work.

“Badlands” (1973) was a gritty debut with Starkweather social commentary, “Days of Heaven” (1978) was a magic-hour biblical allegory, and “The Thin Red Line” (1998) was a powerful treatise on the art of meaningless war. His best remains “The Tree of Life” (2011), which had the sheer guts to juxtapose intimate details of modern suburbia against the formation of the universe and evolution of dinosaurs.

But after his last three films — “To the Wonder” (2012), “Knight of Cups” (2016) and “Song to Song” (2017) — I’ve just about had it with Terrence Malick. Sure, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki offers fish-eye lenses, detailed close-ups and gorgeous compositions, but without any story, it all amounts to nothing more than a two-hour-plus director’s reel, a “proof of concept” for a movie yet to be made.

Worst of all is the relentless existential narration. It wants us to contemplate the meaning of life, but instead it makes us question the meaning of the movie. At one point, Gosling says, “After a while, you get used to the drifting, to the waiting.” No, no we don’t. We want to choke on our popcorn to escape.

During the advanced screening at Landmark Bethesda Row earlier this week, approximately 15 people — both critics and moviegoers — got up and exited this excruciating experience early. I haven’t seen that many people walk out of a movie theater since Malick’s last movie. Don’t waste your time.

“Song to Song” isn’t groundbreaking nor refreshing. It’s a master class in pretentious and indulgent filmmaking. As Francis Ford Coppola said in the making-of documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” (1991): “Nothing is so terrible as a pretentious movie. I mean, a movie that aspires for something really terrific and doesn’t pull it off, is sh*t, it’s scum, and everyone will walk on it as such. That’s why poor filmmakers, in a way, that’s their greatest horror — to be pretentious.”

The horror, the horror.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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