Saturday, July 8, 2017

Movie Reviews: Life, The Belko Experiment

directed by Daniel Espinosa
Good B-movie that doesn't quite live up to its cast
This film is not in the same league as Alien or The Thing but that doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile Saturday afternoon B-movie which draws from the same Lovecraftian inspirations as the aforementioned movies. It also shows its debt to 40s noir and 50s monster films. If you go into this movie nitpicking every little thing then you're missing the point. Yes, there are a few pointy headed scientists who lack common sense. Yes, sometimes the movie's physics are dead on accurate; other times they are completely made up. And supposedly trained scientists and engineers at the top of their professions make horrible mistakes when faced with a crisis. But that last is human nature. Unless you train continually, chances are good that when faced with an emergency you may make sub-optimal decisions. Playing a video driving simulation game is different from racing the Daytona 500. No plan survives contact with the enemy. 

The scientist who is convinced that he alone can bridge the gap between humanity and a possibly hostile life form is a pretty old trope. So basically movies like Life aren't meant for deep analysis. They are effectively haunted house movies without the supernatural elements. You're supposed to enjoy the thrills and imagine what you would do in that situation.

Despite a few "mistakes", which would likely be immediately obvious to any self-respecting physicist or biologist, the film manages to keep a patina of scientific realism, which helps to heighten the dramatic tension and isolation. Humans can't survive in outer space. Humans can't survive on any planet in the solar system other than Earth. Long travel in space is deadly to human health. Life makes nods to all of those facts. Life takes place in the current day. The International Space Station is crewed by six astronauts from the US, the UK, Japan and Russia. These include Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a shy introvert and medical officer who is suffering the physical ailments of having been in space too long, Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), a paraplegic biologist whose scientific curiosity can overwhelm his good sense, Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) the CDC representative and quarantine expert, Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) the brash flight engineer/pilot, Sho Murikami (Hiroyuki Sanada), the stolid systems engineer who has just become a new father. and lastly Ektarina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) the fretful mission commander. 

The crew is retrieving a probe from Mars that contains soil samples. They believe that the samples may contain life or evidence of past life. Foreshadowing later issues the probe is off course. Rory has to do a space walk to manually "catch" the probe and bring it into the space station. Hugh examines the soil and discovers that there is indeed a dormant single celled organism within. By manipulating the temperature, pressure and atmosphere within the laboratory he's able to bring this cell back to life. This is big news. Something that has been hibernating for millions of years is alive again. The astronauts are heroes! In Skype sessions with American students the new creature is named Calvin. Some of the astronauts are a little worried about having something on board that has survived eons in a hostile environment. They also wonder what Calvin eats. But Hugh is indifferent to those concerns. He is interested in interacting with Calvin. When Calvin returns to hibernation Hugh tries everything he can to stimulate Calvin's awakening. This doesn't work out to Hugh's benefit. Rory decides to play the hero. 

And then we see that Calvin is hungry, much smarter than anyone could expect, and has an exponential growth pattern. You might even describe Calvin as a Shoggoth. Calvin is all brain, eyes and muscle. Panic ensues. There's not much character development here. It's not that kind of movie. It's about the plot. As mentioned, if you overthink this film or compare it to the best in genre then you may be mildly disappointed. But for a sci-fi B movie I think this does okay. I like these sorts of movies. Sound and visuals are good, considering that much of the film takes place in low light or darkness.

The Belko Experiment
directed by Greg McLean
bloody horror film that can be understood as satire or enjoyed straight
Much of life is about competition. We compete for spouses or sexual partners. We compete for parking spaces, for jobs, for raises, for business contracts, for almost everything in one way or the other. However, competition is not the only or even major characteristic which defines humans. We also have a pretty strong streak of altruism. We help people even when there's no perceivable value to us for doing so. Sometimes we even help people when it's definitely against our best interest. Some people who are millionaires or billionaires agitate for higher taxes on the wealthy. Other people who are physically strong refuse to beat weaker people into submission and take what they want. As mentioned in another review there is a tension between the competing philosophies of utilitarianism (do what is right/best for the highest number of people) and deontology (find what is right and stick to that regardless of consequences). 
Most of us just live our day to day lives and don't think too deeply about any of this. Leave it to the moralists, the devout and philosophers. But what if you were placed in a life and death situation and had to decide what sort of person you were? What would you do? How would you respond? 

The Belko Experiment asks these questions. It's a little violent for my tastes. The camera lingers on the dead or dying bodies too long. The director might have remembered that sometimes less is more. Ironically the film's most emotionally intense scenes occur when violence is depicted offscreen. I remember when my company had mass layoffs. The company hired outside security guards. The company bosses fired people and immediately escorted them from the building. Friends fired friends. This is the business we've chosen, as Hyman Roth might have said. Now imagine that same power dynamic, only with a terminal outcome. 
Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr) is a mid level employee of Belko Industries, a non-profit company which helps American and other Western companies do staffing in Third World nations. Mike works in the Bogota, Colombia branch. On a day like any other he arrives at work only to discover that none of the local Colombian workers are being allowed in the building. Only the American and other Western nationals are allowed inside. And there are new heavily armed men checking id. Mike learns that neither his buddy, security guard Evan (James Earl) nor his girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) know what's going on. Leandra does know that she's tired of being harassed by lonely pervert and executive VP Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinley).

Shortly after the last American worker has entered the building, a voice comes on the intercom telling everyone that they must kill three of their co-workers within a certain time period or face dire consequences. The doors and windows are blocked. Communication with the outside is prevented. Everyone thinks this is a sick prank. The ranking onsite executive, COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn) tries to calm everyone. But remaining calm isn't an option after it's demonstrated that the tracking devices implanted in the employees as a supposed anti-kidnapping implement are actually explosives. The voice kills a number of the employees, and then demands more deaths. Now you might ask why would you agree to work for a company that inserted a device inside you upon hiring but I guess jobs are hard to find in a globalized market. Or maybe Belko just hires extra special stupid people.

Mike and Barry wind up on opposite sides. Mike thinks the employees should stick together and seek outside help. Mike has no intention of killing anyone. It's wrong. Barry thinks that it is what it is. If he must terminate some people for the greater good--particularly his greater good-- he's okay with that. As someone who hires and fires and not coincidentally has military experience, Barry is comfortable with brutal utilitarian calculus. Many of the strongest people or those who already nursed grudges are quickest to adapt to the situation. If you can't tolerate violence of any kind, skip this movie. The carnage is unrelenting. 
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