Editor’s Note: Life opens in wide theatrical release today, March 24, 2017.
If we’ve learned anything – anything at all – from Jurassic Park I-III, Jurassic World, and no doubt, the forthcoming sequel, Jurassic World II, it’s this simple message: Life always finds a way and by way, we mean, mess with Mother Nature – or in the case of Life: The Movie, a science-fiction/horror film directed by Daniel Espinosa (Child 44, Safe House), Martian Nature – and Mother/Martian Nature messes right back. Too bad the central characters in Life, scientists and/or engineers all, orbiting the Earth on the International Space Station (ISS for short), only learn that lesson when it’s obviously too late and they, not to mention the lives of every human being on Earth, face existential peril, the result of an extraterrestrial life form, a single-celled organism that’s “all muscle, all brain, and all eye,” escapes the confines of a petri dish and the sealed box where it’s meant to live, survive, and thrive without threatening its human hosts.
Espinosa shoots the interior – and later the exterior – of the space station with an agile, graceful fluidity that keeps the audience oriented.
Life covers little new genre ground – in fact, it’s even more derivative than the trailers and TV ads let on, pilfering plot bits and story pieces from Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Gravity, and The Martian – but what it does, i.e., putting the fear of a voracious, destructive alien other into the hearts and minds of every audience member, it does extremely well, a credit to Espinosa’s assured direction (minus the painfully predictable third-act climax) and a humor-free script courtesy of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the screenwriting duo behind last year’s surprise mega-hit, Deadpool, and 2009’s underrated Zombieland. Reese and Wernick leave the early jokes to Ryan Reynolds’ engineer character, Roy Adams, but once the alien life form, found in dirt collected from Mars by a NASA rover, escapes, the humor all but disappears. Life turns an overfamiliar survival horror film, knocking off the characters in ingenious and not-so-ingenious ways. The demise of one character borrows (more like steals) from Alien, including face-hugging, involuntary ingestion of an alien life form, and a disturbingly explosive aftermath, complete with floating trails of artistically rendered CGI blood.
The cast of characters, fodder one and most for the rapidly growing alien life from, includes a Russian commander, Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), the aforementioned Adams, a medical doctor, Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), going on 400+ days on the space station (a record, we’re told), Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), a British microbiologist with the Centers for Disease Control, Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), another Brit and the chief biologist tasked with bringing the dormant life form, a microscopic single-celled organism, back to life with the help of a glucose injection and the right, primordial atmosphere, Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), the ISS’s resident systems expert. Outside of Jordan’s war experience (he’s still traumatized from working as a field doctor in Syria), Derry’s disability (on Earth, he’s wheelchair bound), and Kendo’s impending fatherhood, character details are deliberately short supply. We learn everything we’re going to learn about the characters not through their backstories or even words, but how they react in extraordinary circumstances.
What Life does, i.e., put the fear of a voracious, destructive alien other into the hearts and minds of every audience member, it does extremely well, a credit to Espinosa’s assured direction (minus the painfully predictable third-act climax) and a humor-free script courtesy of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.
Short answer: They’re the best and the brightest, except when they’re acting stupidly to advance the plot or risking their own lives to save another crewmember. Intentionally or not, Life places a premium on self-preservation. The alien has one goal and one goal only: Survival. The alien’s human opponents are driven – at least in part – by altruism. At several key points, characters do the “right” thing, trying to save another crewmember from certain death, only for their decision to further imperil the rest of the crew and with them, Earth (not just humans, but practically anything on Earth). The alien’s self-interest repeatedly trumps the human characters attempts at altruism. They’re not prepared for its ruthlessness, single-mindedness, or its growing intelligence. When it moves on multiple, tentacle-like limbs, it’s almost unstoppable. As a carbon-based life form, it needs oxygen to survive, but it’s also hardy enough to survive in the vacuum of space for long periods of time. It’s also tough enough to survive contact with the wrong end of a flamethrower (Alien alert).
Espinosa shoots the interior – and later the exterior – of the space station with an agile, graceful fluidity that keeps the audience oriented (up and down don’t necessarily have the same meaning aboard a gravity-free space station) through Life’s CGI-aided seven-minute opening shot, a free-floating tour of the space station which doubles as the obligatory introduction to the station’s crew. Setting Life aboard a variation of the ISS rather than a super-sleek, future-modern space station or space ship was a smart choice for a science-fiction/horror film. It automatically adds a disquieting, surface-deep layer of claustrophobic even before the alien escapes its box and begins hunting down and eliminating the crew in classic monster/stalker fashion. On the flip side, though, the near-identical nature of each module, crafting for functionality, not aesthetics, adds a contrary layer of blandness, even monotony. Still, Espinosa proves adept at navigating his camera around the ISS, always finding the perfect shot or series of shots to maximize dread and later, deliver the scares audiences expect from the genre.
Life covers little new ground in the space horror genre, borrowing plot bits and story pieces from Alien, Gravity, The Martian and more, but what it does -- put the fear of a voracious, destructive alien other into the hearts and minds of every audience member -- it does extremely well,