Life (2017): Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, directed by Daniel Espinosa. Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya. Running Time: 103 minutes.
Life, a new entry in the monster-horror-in-space genre by Daniel Espinosa, has a title and a trailer that hints at an at least somewhat-poetic exploration of the nature of life itself, how radically different life from another world could be for us, and what inherent dangers there could be in establishing first contact. This, at first, made it sound like it could succeed as a spiritual sister to last year’s superb Arrival. Alas, it does not.
The film opens with the team stationed in the ISS preparing to receive a probe returning from Mars. Once received, they begin to examine tiny samples of soil from the planet, searching for incontrovertible signs of life beyond Earth. They find it rather quickly, a single-celled organism that begins to grow and develop rapidly once they find the right atmospheric gases to “activate” it. Dubbing it “Calvin,” they watch as it quickly grows from a single cell into a small, amoeba-like creature with arm-like appendages. At first assuming it to be harmless, things start to go south very, very fast when the creature attacks the lead scientist studying it, escapes from its cage, kills a crew member, and soon has them facing the ultimate survival dilemma; if they escape the station and return to Earth in order to preserve their own lives, they risk the creature jumping on board and potentially risking all life on the planet. If they stay to keep it contained, their lives are effectively forfeit.
It’s about as solid a setup as you can get for this sort of intended pulse-pounder, and to its credit, this is a solidly-made film (for the most part). There is some excellent cinematography, especially in the beginning, where the camera floats and drifts and even flips upside down alongside the crew in zero gravity. The score is functional, if a bit by-the-numbers, and the editing and pacing fit the sort of tone the film is going for.
Sadly, it all starts to come to pieces by the end. The script is barebones to a fault, hinting at a larger story about some sort of Committee (and we know none of the background of the probe and samples and why now of all times they anticipated finding life from Mars). Keeping the audience in the dark about the larger picture is perfectly fine when handled well, but the meat of the main story isn’t enough to carry itself, and the tidbits from the larger story we get almost feel like they could have made a more interesting movie.
Much of the shortcomings in the horror aspect of the film come down to the resident monster. Calvin is certainly an intriguing, octopus-esque design, but there are too many odd occasions where the point of view switches to “Calvin Vision” to show what the monster sees, and at a certain point in its development it gets what is definitely a face of some sort. Part of the thrill of seeing this sort of threat from an alien life form lies in the mystery of what it is and what it can do; keeping the design ambiguous and unlike anything from Earth, as well as having us be as ignorant as the crew as to Calvin’s whereabouts, would have done much to keep the film afloat.
What rescues much of film from itself are the performances- the characterizations of each crew member are as skeletal as the narrative, but they commit enough to their performances to *almost* make up for it. In the case of the lead scientist, Ariyon Bakare actually manages to create the only real emotional arc in the entire film, which involves the film’s best bit of visual storytelling.
Life is by no means a bad film- in many aspects and in many scenes it’s quite good- but there’s ultimately nothing here that hasn’t been done before in other, better movies, so unless you are an obsessive completist for this particular horror sub-genre, I would probably recommend saving your money for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.