Despite some promising elements, Life amounts to a middling (and derivative) sci-fi horror/thriller that never fully realizes its potential.
Upon successfully recovering a probe returning from Mars, the International Space Station crew are enthralled to discover that they now have a sample from the red planet – one containing an organism that provides the first proof of life beyond Earth. The ISS team, which includes one Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) and Rory ‘Roy’ Adams (Ryan Reynolds), thereafter maintain a strict adherence to safety protocol, in order to ensure that nothing goes wrong, should the organism prove to be dangerous or deadly to humans.
The Martian organism (which is dubbed “Calvin” in honor of an elementary school back on Earth) begins to rapidly evolve in the ISS laboratory, but otherwise appears to be benign… until one day when, following an accident in the lab, “Calvin” suddenly turns hostile and becomes an immediate danger to everyone onboard. As the various people aboard the ISS struggle to contain this newfound threat and keep themselves alive in the process, there’s one thing they agree on: they cannot allow this creature to make its way to Earth, even if that means sacrificing their own lives in order to do so.
The latest addition to the long list of movies descended from Ridley Scott’s classic Alien, Life is a surprisingly middle of the road offering, considering the caliber of talent involved on both sides of the camera . While the film takes steps to mix up the well-trod formula for a story about humans encountering not-so-friendly extraterrestrial life in outer space, it falls somewhat short of fulfilling those ambitions. Despite some promising elements, Life amounts to a middling (and derivative) sci-fi horror/thriller that never fully realizes its potential.
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (of Zombieland and Deadpool fame), Life is partially successful at taking the now-familiar concept of people being trapped in a spaceship/space station with a monstrous extraterrestrial (once pioneered by Alien) and adding some clever variations to the narrative proceedings. Problem is, in order to achieve this, Life winds up incorporating plot contrivances – some of which inadvertently make its twists and turns all the easier to anticipate – and under-serving its various human characters, from a development standpoint. Similarly, the “monster” in Life is creepy and innovative in certain respects, yet it doesn’t always operate in accordance with a consistent set of rules (or one that evolves logically) in the way that, say, creatures such as the Xenmorph and Predator do. This reduces the tension in Life, making it all the more easy to predict when the “monster” is going to find some miraculous way to get the upper hand on the humans that it’s stalking.
“Calvin” is a solid CGI creation that kills its victims in an effectively disturbing manner in Life, making it one of the film’s more unique elements. Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) and the movie’s cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Godzilla, Nocturnal Animals) do a commendable job of visually mapping out the International Space Station’s interior layout, allowing Life to better maintain a claustrophobic atmosphere once it sets Calvin loose on the movie’s hapless astronauts. At the same time, Life recycles a number of techniques used in other recent sci-fi offerings set in space (the Gravity-style extended take near the beginning of Life, for example) without matching their achievements in terms of quality and/or bringing much that’s new to the table. Life thus falls short of establishing a rich sense of atmosphere and striking visual style of its own – coming off more as a mashup of elements from other films as a result, rather than one with its own identity.
Similarly, the three main lead actors in Life – Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson – give solid performances in their own right, yet are saddled with characters that are never fully fleshed out in the film. Reynolds as Rory/”Roy” is one of the more memorable players in the film, despite being a standard variation on Reynolds’ tried-and-true, foul-mouthed smart aleck persona. Gyllenhaal, by comparison, delivers a fine performance as the ISS’s longtime resident David, yet the character never evolves beyond being two-dimensional (even with the references to why David prefers life in space to Earth). Ferguson is solid in her own right while playing the disciplined and by-the-book Miranda, yet her character likewise fails to leave much of a lasting impression.
Ariyon Bakare (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell), Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine) and the Belarusian actress Olga Dihovichnaya round out the main ensemble in Life, playing the additional members of the ISS crew that crosses paths with Calvin. In typical horror movie fashion, the supporting players in Life are basic archetypes that are provided with a slight amount of emotional depth (Bakare’s Hugh Derry, for example, is a scientist who was wheelchair-bound when he was on Earth), in the hopes of getting the audience invested in their fates. As such, Life struggles to sufficiently flesh out its side characters – making it all the more obvious that they exist in the movie primarily to be hunted by Calvin, no more or less.
Although it makes for passable genre entertainment on its own, Life is also a routine sci-fi horror/thriller that amounts to less than the sum of its parts. While Life‘s cast and crew have succeeded in delivering more inspired genre films in the past, Life fits pretty squarely into the Alien mold and lacks the personality to stand out as a memorable addition to that sub-genre. Nevertheless, those who are in the mood to watch some unsuspecting humans have a not-so-friendly close encounter of the third kind, may find that Life does a derivable job of delivering the goods and want to give it a look at some point (if not necessarily in theaters).
Life is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 103 minutes long and is Rated R for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror.
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