Movie Review: Life.
Gorgeous visuals and a strong cast get hamstrung by bad decisions, though Life manages to mostly entertain.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa (Child 44), Life is a horror film in the vein of classic monster from outer space flicks, updated with slick visuals. The resurgence of hard Sci-Fi, popularized by films such as Gravity, The Martian, and Arrival, gives a cutting edge feel to a very old story: science meddles with powers beyond its understanding and pays a bloody price.
This movie has a very strong cast, led by Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson, and certainly spares no expense to create some of the best zero gravity sequences I’ve seen in film, but it falls into one too many horror pitfalls to be a stand out experience. You won’t regret your time in the theater, but Life is hardly destined to become a hallmark in the genre.
A six person crew aboard the International Space Station salvages a damaged probe that is returning from Mars. Aboard, the find soil samples with the biggest discovery of the space age: dormant cells from extraterrestrial life. Attempting to learn its secrets, they awaken the foreign creature, only to find themselves trapped aboard the station with a being that is willing to survive at any cost.
While the cast is small, it is packed to the rafters with good performances. Ryan Reynolds, though in a subordinate role, really shines as a space jock who loves his job but doesn’t follow the rules. Jake Gyllenhaal has the lion share of the film’s plot, and I enjoyed his character; he’s a doctor who has served on the front lines of some of the most brutal wars in the last two decades, and space becomes a refuge from the demons that haunt him. As a nice counterpoint, Ariyon Bakare plays a biologist working on the new life form, and he has a warmth and enthusiasm for his job.
There is minimal back story for the characters, but the film manages to get you up to speed fairly rapidly. My big grip with the film is that the crew falls into familiar horror movie blunders of the type that slasher flicks love to repeat, but that ends up being a plotting problem and not an acting problem. The whole crew is well played and feel like genuine people, which is about all you can ask from your cast.
The cinematography of Life is very good. Much like Gravity (a comparison that will keep popping up) this film really feels viscerally at home in space. The station is lovingly detailed, and there are many great shots of the vessel in space against a back drop of the Earth. The zero gravity sequences are handled flawlessly. The tech that was created for Gravity has really revolutionized the genre, allowing for amazing zero G sequences (and without requiring a trip on “the vomit comet” in order to get true weightlessness like Apollo 13 had to go through.)
The creature itself is another fantastic figment of digital effects. At first very simple, akin to a gelatinous star fish, the monster (Calvin, as they dub it) grows into an efficient and terrifying creature. The kinesthetics of its movement are fluid and realistic, and it swims through the weightless environment in a beautifully terrifying way. As ethereal as it appears, the creature also has heft, as its preferred method of attack is to constrict like a snake, snapping bones and restraints alike. Everything about the creature, physically, looks great. Much like the acting, my problem with the creature comes from the plot instead of the nuts and bolts of how it is animated.
So, now we come to the rub. The major problem with life is that it can’t shake the facile horror trope of people doing stupid things that get them killed. It is a mild irritant when your cast is a camp full of teenage coeds, but it gets to be pretty ridiculous when your cast is polymath geniuses aboard a billion dollar space station.
The film manages its pace very well, giving you the highs and lows you would expect from a horror thriller. The exposition and character building is fluid and organic, and Espinosa punctuates slower moments with the action needed to keep it flowing. The hitch is that each episode of action is the result of very smart people being pretty dumb, and dumb in the same way pretty much every time.
Each time they have the creature trapped, somebody makes an unforced error by trying to save somebody who is obviously already toast. It happens over and over and over, and it gets exasperating. Sorry, but your friend is dead, so don’t unlock the door with the monster behind it!
It really comes down to a group of smart people with a defined mission screwing the pooch by forgetting their training and protocols. They even make a point of saying “we all knew what the stakes were and signed up for this.” If that’s so, why do they keep making rookie mistakes and seem so painfully unprepared?
The final section of the film strains credulity to just under the breaking point, asking us to believe that these specialists hand picked for this assignment are so foolish, and that a creature with no experience in space is so preternaturally aware of how to outsmart astronauts on their home turf. The ending was problematic and a bit of an unearned twist, as well.
Comparisons abound to both Gravity and Alien, but Life only gets the Gravity part correct. The crew of the Nostromo (Podunk company grunts with no specialization or education) are much more competent when it comes to dealing with strange lifeforms, and that fact makes the struggle more visceral and dire. This feels like a slasher flick where you just have to shake your head and go with each bad decision.
Life will keep you entertained for the run time, mostly, but it will also fill your ride home with many objections and “if they’d only done X” propositions. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for a horror flick, but it does mean Life is something you’re not going to need to see twice.