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LIFE

Producer: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Bonnie Curtis and Julie Lynn
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Writer: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Olga Dihovichnaya, Hiroyuki Sanada and Ariyon Bakare
Studio: Sony Pictures/Columbia Pictures

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Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” famously describes itself as telling “a tale as old as time,” but Daniel Espinosa’s sci-fi movie “Life” relates one that, in cinematic terms, is only slightly more youthful: a space vessel finds evidence of extraterrestrial life and the crew takes it aboard. Under scientific observation it develops quickly, becoming predatory and picking off the humans one by one. Obviously, it must be prevented from reaching earth, where it could wreak untold havoc.

We’ve seen this scenario on screen countless times, in “Alien” most notably, but also in plenty of B-movies from the 1950s as well as innumerable clones of Ridley Scott’s 1979 blockbuster. One thing that distinguishes this retelling is an exceptional cast, which does its best to breathe some dramatic life into the unexceptional story. Another positive is the creature effects that are quite impressive (even if in its final form the gelatinous, octopus-like ET resembles one of the aliens Ben Tennyson used to morph into). Ultimately, though, the technical polish and Hollywood star power aren’t enough to save the movie from a been-there, seen-that feel.

The setting is a multi-billion-dollar space station, tasked with undertaking a dangerous maneuver to recover a Mars probe that took samples of soil but was knocked off its return trajectory by a meteor shower. The crew succeeds, thanks to the cowboy courage of Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds), who, during a space walk, maneuvers a giant space arm to catch the speeding capsule. When the sample is studied by resident biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), he discovers a microscopic single-cell organism that he excitedly begins to study as the first proof of extraterrestrial life. The find is relayed to earth, where a contest among schoolchildren results in its being named Calvin.

But Calvin turns out to be more Hobbesian, driven exclusively by the need to survive. And Dr. Derry—confined to a wheelchair on earth but able to move about freely on the zero-gravity station—proves to be the successor to the many overeager geniuses in such stories. When the shimmering, plant-like critter, which has grown quickly in size, suddenly goes dormant, he decides to shock it with energy to wake it up. That’s a terrible mistake, since it not only brings the thing back into action but apparently makes it very hungry.

Thus begins the body count. It wouldn’t be fair to disclose the order of the deaths, or the grisly depictions of them. Suffice it to say that in addition to Adams and Derry, those aboard the station are mission commander Katerina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya), engineer Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), the representative of the CDC, and medic David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal). All act out of a mixture of motives—self-preservation and self-sacrifice chief among them. But Calvin proves a wily adversary, extraordinarily fast and adaptive, capable of surviving blasts of energy and fire but with weaknesses that can perhaps be exploited.

There’s a great deal of running around from airlock to airlock in “Life”—one of the movie’s most notable features is Nigel Phelps’ production design, which presents the station’s interior as a labyrinth of interlocking, heavily-equipped tubes, through which the crew fly about, barely missing one another as they pass. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey uses it to the full, toward the start in a long, intricate tracking shot that mimics Orson Welles’ classic “Touch of Evil” opening (though, it must be said, without the same frisson—a copy never matches the original).

The cast fling themselves into the action, and all do reasonably well overall, even if even the best of them, like Gyllenhaal, can’t overcome the fact that the roles are very sketchily written. The lack of interesting dialogue in the script—along with anything but a few dollops of juvenile humor—is surprising given the previous work of scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who have elsewhere shown a lot more imagination and verbal flair. Of course, the need to incorporate reams of scientific gobbledygook in an attempt to explain, however fatuously, what’s happening is a definite drawback. Still, Reese and Wernick might at least have made more of an effort to clarify the twist at the close, which seems utterly random.

The lack of clarity there—and at a few other points in the final reel—must, of course, be blamed not only on the writers but on Espinosa and editors Frances Parker and Mary Jo Markey. Until that point they have kept things reasonably intelligible despite the generally hectic pace once the creature gets loose; but as the action of the last act grows increasingly chaotic, their control seems to slip as well. Meanwhile Jon Ekstrand’s propulsive score ratchets up the volume to emphasize the prospect of looming disaster.

“Life” has been given A-list treatment, but in the end it’s nothing more than a competent retread of a formula better served elsewhere.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Producer: David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman
Director: Bill Condon
Writer: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos
Stars: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Niathan Mack, Hattie Morahan, Adrian Schiller and Ray Fearon
Studio: Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures

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Disney has always been the master cinematic recycler, from the pre-VHS era, when it reissued its classic animated features on a staggered schedule, through its employment of limited purchase periods for them in home video format, to its current program simply to remake them in live-action form, whether on stage or screen, or both. It’s a technique that can be traced back to 1996 with “101 Dalmatians,” but of late it has become a main part of the studio’s output, though until now it has involved substantial changes from the original (“Maleficent,” “Alice in Wonderland”) and/or derived from lesser past efforts (“The Jungle Book” and “Cinderella,” both of which also differed in dropping the songs entirely).

Now, however, we have a remake of an undeniable classic—1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which had already been reworked for Broadway, and it’s more a direct copy than a remake. There is padding, especially in terms of material involving the heroine and her father, as well as a trio of new songs. But while that adds some forty minutes to the running-time, it leaves much of the picture a virtual frame-by-frame duplicate of the original. Since the first film was so good, one might ask, what’s the problem? And to a certain extent, the answer would be there isn’t any, except for the fact that while the new version is engaging enough, it’s inferior to the original, and so basically unnecessary—unless your main interest is on the studio’s budgetary bottom line. So the correct question might instead be: apart from the cash flow, what’s the point?

Not much, as it turns out, because this new “Beauty,” while boasting all the sumptuousness the studio and a huge effects crew can muster, turns out to be a middling affair. It begins with an opulent new prologue in which the arrogant prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed in the middle of a big ballroom dance by an old woman named Agathe (Hattie Morahan) whom he refuses to help, and turned into the titular Beast. That’s followed by further added backstory that details the relationship between Belle (Emma Watson)—the spunky village lass with a distinctly modern independent streak and a love of books—and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), a somewhat befuddled but lovable crafter of elaborate mechanical doodads who has never explained how or why her mother disappeared from their lives.

It’s her dad’s disappearance while on what amounts to a business trip that leads first him and then Belle to the Beast’s castle, where the anthropomorphic figures of the candelabra Lumiere (voiced by Ewan McGregor), the clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), the teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson)—along with her teacup son Chip (Nathan Mack)—and the wardrobe Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald) make their appearance, along with a few others similarly transformed (the maid Plumette, voiced by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who’s now a feather duster, and court composer Cadenza–a new character voiced by Stanley Tucci, who’s now a harpsichord). Lumiere, Cogsworth and Potts, of course, spearhead the effort to encourage the mean-tempered Beast, an elaborate melding of CGI and Stevens, to mellow out in order to persuade Belle to love him and thus break the curse that afflicts them all before time runs out.

The other side of the coin, of course, is represented by narcissistic villain Gaston (Luke Evans), who wants Belle for his own and will ultimately threaten both Maurice and the Beast. One of the most publicized alterations of the picture is that his ultra-loyal chum LeFou (Josh Gad) is now depicted as unmistakably gay, pining after Gaston as much as Gaston wants Belle—a bit of business that’s played, in truth, about as subtly as closeted friends were portrayed in comedies of the thirties and forties but in this day and age should surely be a ho-hum matter rather than the horrifying scandal some have made of it. (Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that no such hand-wringing has resulted from the fact that when Plumette and Garderobe are turned back into their human states, they’re black. Today’s Disney has simply left its Uncle Remus past behind and exalts diversity. Live with it.)

Apart from the fact that director Bill Condon, whose “Gods and Monsters” (1998) was so masterful a treatment of a story with gay underpinnings, could have handled the LeFou subplot with more deftness (Gad’s oversized personality doesn’t help matters in that regard), he manages the demands of shepherding such a big enterprise efficiently. He obviously loves old-fashioned musical numbers, and crafts those here as he might have done for the stage; most come off well—except when the effects team goes into overdrive. That tendency certainly afflicts the show-stopper “Be Our Guest,” in which the explosion of animated joy of the 1991 picture becomes a chaotic jumble of clunky CGI that instead resembles the galumphing excess of Disney’s recent “Alice in Wonderland” extravaganzas or “Oz the Great and Powerful.”

Overall, in fact, the effects are okay but not outstanding. The most problematic of them, unfortunately, is the rendering of the Beast, whose generally stiff movements suggest motion-capture work that doesn’t quite come off. That hobbles Stevens’ performance; he’s a canny actor, as such dissimilar efforts as “Downton Abbey,” “The Guest” and his TV series “Legion” well demonstrate, but little of his charisma survives in this incarnation, even when he’s shown in human form. But he’s not unique in this: the household characters lack the vibrancy of their animated counterparts, too, although the voicework by the likes of McGregor, Thompson and McKellen is certainly committed.

The un-CGI humans fare better. Watson makes a properly confident Belle, and Kline puts his considerable Broadway experience to good use. The biggest surprise is probably Evans, who captures some of the arrogant fun of Gaston as well as the malevolence one would have expected him to convey. Gad does his semi-swish routine with his customary exuberance, and the rest of the cast model their fairy-tale costumes (designed by Jacqueline Durran) decently enough while doing what the script demands of them. The musical numbers are nicely done, with expert orchestrations and excellent singing—though one suspects some dubbing for the actors might be involved in the latter. The cinematography by Tobias Schliessler and production design by Sarah Greenwood are also praiseworthy—at least as viewed in 2D format, without the darkening of 3D—but there are moments when one wishes that editor Virginia Katz had hustled things along a bit more quickly.

To return to the bottom line, however—which is, after all, what this “Beauty and the Beast” is all about—Disney will reap a huge profit from it despite its high cost. But in future years when families want to experience the story again, the smart money says that it will be the DVD of the 1991 film that they’ll reach for.