Life was directed by Daniel Espinosa (Morbius, Child 44), written by Rhett Reese (6 Underground, Zombieland) and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), and stars Jake Gyllenhaal (Demolition, Jarhead), Rebecca Ferguson (Dune, The Kid Who Would Be King), Hiroyuki Sanada (Army of the Dead, Mortal Kombat), Ariyon Bakare (Doctors, Frankie), Olga Dykhovichnaya (House of Others, Two Days), and Ryan Reynolds (Free Guy, Van Wilder). It’s about a team of scientists on board the ISS discovering a rapidly evolving organism and trying to survive its violent tendencies.
The Plot: Screenwriters Reese and Wernick have rightly been praised for their more comedic material, but they didn’t bring that same knack for spinning tropes back into something original, making Life a relentlessly pale imitation of everyone’s favourite sci-fi horror.
Several scientists aboard the ISS have been waiting a long time for a soil sample from Mars, and with Rory (Reynolds) narrowly catching the module, biologist Hugh (Bakare) and team leader Ekaterina (Dykhovichnaya) are able to analyze the sample and find that a single-celled organism is alive but dormant. With the assistance of Sho (Sanada), Hugh brings the organism back to life, spurring a media frenzy. It’s an interesting inclusion, having the entire team, including David (Gyllenhaal) and Miranda (Ferguson) do some interviews for TV, but in reality, this is just for expository purposes.
Time passes, allowing Hugh to administer glucose to the microorganism which is fast becoming visible to the naked eye. By week three complacency has set in and the lifeform has gotten acquainted with its surroundings, eventually breaking free from its observational trappings. The next time Hugh takes a look at it, it becomes clear that it isn’t friendly and that the crew is going to have to find a way to eliminate the newfound threat. The first act drags more than it needs to, with the veil of importance soon lifted, making room for a straightforward survival story.
No changes to the established formula’s basics are present and no twists reside amidst the chaos, aside from one at the very end that will most likely be predicted by all viewers. If you’ve seen Alien, you’ve seen Life.
The Characters: With an inordinate amount of time dedicated to the first act for these kinds of movies, the writers still didn’t give the players much in the way of attributes, opting to hope that the terrific cast could summon enough cumulative empathy to fill the void.
David and Miranda, despite being the leaders of the ensemble, are some of the least detailed of the crew. David is an ex-military serviceman, presumably a medic in whatever branch he served, as he admits to setting up aid stations in Syria with frequency only to find that they’d be destroyed more often than not. He prefers the emptiness of space since he doesn’t have to deal with mankind’s natural violence, but this never comes across through his behaviour. Miranda doesn’t even get this much, only identifiable by her CDC training in quarantining potential threats.
Sho’s wife gave birth while he’s been away, Ekaterina is another complete blank, and Hugh is disabled from the waist down. He’s not resentful of his condition, in fact, he embraces it once the organism is brought onboard, hoping that it will lead to new discoveries in the medical field. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s just more posturing in a movie full of it. Rory is the funny man of the group, and Reynolds is the only cast member able to wring some emotion out of scant material.
Minor moments of the group together ape scenes from Alien, but the cast doesn’t share the same believable bond that the actors in that movie did. Everyone here is trying, but it seems like the middling direction let them down.
The Horror: Espinosa does a better job with keeping up a sense of dread than he did with characterization since he has more to work with in this area than the one prior, though the script does have its problems in this regard too.
Peaking early, the most riveting sequence comes as soon as the organism wakes up from a short coma and shows its strength by breaking Hugh’s hand, snapping bones in all sorts of unnatural angles. Shortly after, the creature gets bigger by absorbing a lab rat, making a pint-sized pet project into a bigger, meaner opponent. Hugh notes that it’s “all muscle, all brain, all eye”, but this goes out the window (airlock?) as it grows. It works as a juggernaut of alien origin, able to use its size and muscle to the fullest, making up for its silly name “Calvin” given by the public and generic physical design that backpedals on its initial description.
All ingenuity is used up after Calvin’s escape, leaving Life’s scenes of terror reliant upon a team of highly trained individuals whose sole goal is to observe and report but who don’t act as though they were put on the space station with this background. These characters aren’t some glorified haulers like the blue-collar workers in Alien, making their stupidity inorganic; and many of the ensuing deaths are meant to be noble sacrifices, but this falls flat since their own ineptitude continues to be their undoing, making the “all brain” attribute equally null.
Contained moments of terror are still present, like a spacewalk being watched by Calvin, the space station’s communications being taken down before the crew’s message begging for isolation can be fully transmitted, and more bone-crunching kills courtesy of the critter. Each sequence is handled with the proper level of horror, making for a modestly scary experience, even if the familiarity is front and center for the rest of the runtime.
The Technics: Opportunities to make a zero-gravity horror movie are few and far between, so Espinosa shoots his shot with all the bells and whistles he could muster.
Plenty of sequences of weightlessness litter Life, with background objects floating aimlessly, blood floating from bodies, and spinning thespians a common sight, effectively selling the setting’s disconnect from the Earth. DoP Seamus McGarvey’s (Atonement, Greta) camerawork is equally disorienting, as illustrated by an extensive long take that opens the movie, transitioning from actor to actor, location to location. Musically, the movie gels together with an arrhythmic score, completing the atmosphere.
Effects-wise, Life is decent – though it’s not singular by any means. The production design is solid, as are costume and makeup elements. None of what’s on hand is particularly revolutionary, as earlier movies like Gravity sold the illusion just as well, if not better, but considering the mid-level budget for a space-bound blockbuster.
Life is a fine movie. It recycles all of its story beats and horror tropes, but it’s slickly constructed, occasionally scary, and effectively atmospheric.