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LIFE: VFX Immersion and a Realistic Take on Alien Encounters

Available on Amazon Prime video, 2017's LIFE directed by Daniel Espinosa and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds, is a terrifying take on what the discovery of a foreign extraterrestrial organism might be like. While the film is reminiscent of such titles like 1979's Alien the more fascinating and mesmerizing factor actually comes from the visual effects. Modern visual effects can often look clunky, too crisp and gives off a hokey feeling of an unrealistic nature. However, I found the visual effects in LIFE to be quite appropriate, immersive, captivating and expertly executed. This is likely because the effect of anti-gravity to which I am referring was pulled off using a combination of practical wire-flying work along with using CG to remove the presence of wires and harnesses. DNEG and ILM are responsible for a plethora of VFX in the movie LIFE. While DNEG handled most of the weight, ILM worked specifically on the eight minute long-take which opens the film, according to Wikipedia. Overall, the movie might not feel as realistic or immersive as a predecessor like ALIEN but factually, it does offer VFX immersion and a more realistic take on alien encounters.

Before reading any further or clicking on any links or videos, you may want to watch the film if you have not seen it yet. It's tough not to spoil anything while discussing the movie. That being said...


While the movie is engaging, immersive and captivating for the most part, that's not to say it doesn't come without some unrealistic moments or flawed storytelling. The transformation of this alien creature from something which appears to be a kind of combined Flora-Fauna into more of a traditional and somewhat cheesy looking CGI monster was a little offsetting to say the least. While the CGI is not bothersome in the early phases, the move to something practical would have really pulled this movie together. It would have been far more masterful to utilize a combination of practical effects and CGI throughout the development of this creature, but it can be easier on the budgetary constraints when it comes to cost projections and using CGI only.

From screenwriting writing duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, Deadpool 2 and Zombieland), the story and pace keep things interesting for the runtime of one hour and forty three minutes. The movie has a great hook but a bit of a predictable and weak ending. The characters almost tell us how the movie is going to end through the second and third act dialogue. This kind of practice is becoming more and more common as blockbuster movies tend to treat the audience like they need to be fed everything before or as it is happening. While this is a bit of an annoyance, it does not deter from the movie being able to retain one's attention. Some continuity issues were my biggest grievance with the film, i.e. why are they freezing in one scene and then appear to be warmer in their space suits the next? Why not just keep the space suits on in times of desperation? Are their truly no space blankets stored in every compartment to be had? Really?

The constant atmosphere of anti-gravity is what kept me hooked. These stunts and the rigging were so hypnotizing that it keeps you hooked just in sheer wonder constantly trying to spot a cable or flaw. There are a few moments where the tension from a wire harness is visible, but most viewers won't event notice such things. Another noteworthy VFX moment is the use of fire from an onboard flamethrower. I paid close attention to how the on-set VFX team as well as the post-production artists arranged this effect extremely well, from the actors looking the correct direction and performing more casually, to how the flames looked and sounded. Shout out to the sound design for that as well. Finally, while it did not look perfect, there is a scene with a rat being strangled where the hairs tare off and float in in the weightlessness of an experiment chamber. It's easy to miss but it was still a detail I appreciated as it added a heightened sense of consciousness when it comes to realism and continuity. Below is a VFX breakdown reel from DNEG which is worth a watch, especially if you've seen the movie.

Jake Gyllenhaal is always someone I can count on for a good performance. He did not disappoint in this film playing astronaut David Jordan, an ex-combat vet obsessed with staying in space due to his disgust with humanity, which does end up become a bit of a conflict of interest in how his arc unfolds. It makes me wish he played a bigger role. It might have been more effective to see the plot take a different course to support his acting and character a bit more. Ryan Reynolds is... well... Ryan Reynolds. This is a great movie to watch to get a glimpse of Rebecca Fergusons range as an actor, especially given her role in the more recent DUNE franchise from director Denis Villeneuve.

When balancing out the pros and cons, it's pretty easy to say that LIFE is a movie worth watching and it can easily pass under your radar being so undermarketed and underrated. Be sure to check it out on Amazon Prime if you get the chance.


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