Life is an interesting and sleek take on the horror movie in space premise, but it’s too weak on character to bring anything new to the genre.
Between Gravity, The Martian, and now Daniel Espinosa’s Life, there has been enough movie reaffirming my decision not to go into space… ever. Although, Life has more in common — or blatantly rips-off — Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Alien.
At the beginning of Life, tension is high as the six-person crew of the International Space Station (ISS) prepare to capture a space probe that is carrying soil samples from Mars. Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), the captain of the ISS, is coordinating the capture while Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is controlling the arm that will “catch” the probe. They are successful and quickly bring the probe in to let biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyob Bakare) analyze the samples. What they find is quite astonishing — the first proof of life outside of earth. This scene is shot in a long-take that feels reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity without the stunning special effects. However, it does prime us for the incredibly tense journey that is about to follow.
The organism, which is named Calvin by school kids watching from Earth, is “all muscle, all brain, and all eyes,” is being studied — and admired by — Hugh, who is more concerned with the scientific advancements it could bring rather than the danger. Looking on is Quarantine Officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) and senior medical officer Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) who are suspicious of having an unknown being onboard. Nevertheless, the discovery is incredible and Calvin holds reverence with Hugh. After a few scenes of “character building” on the ship — I’ll explain why that’s in quotes later — which includes Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada) helping his wife through labor via Skype, the unthinkable happens. As Hugh is working with Calvin in the lab, the organism — which has grown significantly — latches on to his arm and begins to test its strength by crushing it. It’s a gruesome scene, but it’s also incredibly effective. This set piece — which involves trying to prevent Calvin from escaping — is the movie’s chest-bursting scene. From there, it turns into a game of cat-and-mouse while Calvin tries to stay alive by killing the crew.
One of the few facets of this movie that I will say it did better than Alien is its handling of the horror elements. While it does fall into the jump scare pit, it does tension in a way that Alien never quite hit with me. The scenes of pure horror in Alien are so short that you never really get a chance to savor them. In Life, Espinosa lets the scenes last and you can never truly let your guard down throughout the movie. In fact, you flinch any time a cabinet is opened or a corner is turned. I’d take the Xenomorph over Calvin any day.
However, what Life fails where Alien truly succeeded is at the character level. There isn’t a single character in Alien that you feel is underdeveloped or underused. Everyone from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley to Yaphet Kotto’s Parker is necessary to the plot and make you care about them and their survival. On the other hand, Life doesn’t give you any personality behind the characters. The closest we get is Jake Gyllenhaal’s David and his dread of going back to Earth. Still, you can switch around any actor or any character or any character path and you’ll still get the same result. This is not at the fault of the actors. Gyllenhaal does great work here as usual, as does Dihovichnaya and Ferguson. Bakare is the real discovery here for his nuanced and balanced performance. However, they simply never get the chance to carve out their characters. There simply isn’t time in this lean movie.
That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Life. It’s everything you’d want out of a horror movie in space movie. The story is efficient, the creature design is interesting, and the production is well-done. The movie loses its way a bit in the third act — it feels a bit cheaper than the beginning of the movie — but the first two acts are certainly strong enough on their own right. However, the issue that’s holding me back from giving this a higher score is its meaning. Alien was a study of nature, Gravity was about human will, The Martian spoke about collaboration. Life doesn’t offer anything further than what is on its surface. Unfortunately, its ending contributes to that. You almost feel cheated. But I’d still recommend it. It will entertain you for its short running time and leave you gripping the armrest.