Life | Daniel Espinosa | March 24, 2017
Ah, the space horror-thriller. Since Alien, there have been many films that have tried to re-invent the creature feature set in zero gravity. Although Life has many chilling and tense moments, it doesn’t quite earn its place among the pack of great space horror movies. It gets pretty close, but is ultimately bogged down by its almost too simple plot.
The premise is easy enough to spell out: Astronauts living aboard the ISS are on a mission to retrieve a probe that carries dirt samples from Mars. The dirt sample holds microscopic life that soon grows and keeps growing until it becomes a creature. Said creature becomes hostile and wreaks havoc on the crew and the space station. Is it entertaining? Yes, it often is. There are many moments of Life that are great, but it doesn’t quite all add up to something truly special.
The cast is impressive, although I kept feeling like they were all a tad wasted. Jake Gyllenhaal is David, a former soldier who has been in the ISS for over a year. He goes into some of his back-story, but you don’t really learn too much else about him. The same goes for Ryan Reynolds’ character Roy. Rebecca Ferguson is a CDC scientist named Miranda, who is overseeing quarantine protocol for the Mars samples. The station’s scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) is excited to study the organism and learn more about its biology. During the observations, the organism grows in size and proceeds to become sentient. It’s an organism where every cell in its body is a muscle, brain, and eye tissue cell. It’s smart, and can virtually survive in any conditions, including in the vacuum of space. Of course, as seen in the trailer, the organism gets loose. The crew then has to figure out how to stay alive until they can figure out how to kill this thing before it gets to Earth.
There are moments of brutal violence, but it never goes too far in the gore department. Characters are refreshingly smart, and there are many satisfying “don’t go in there!” moments where the crew members actually make wise choices. That’s what makes it pretty harrowing when it still doesn’t work in their favor. The creature design is one of the best things about Life. A mix of the white troglodyte at the end of Prometheus and a water bug. I was definitely squirming in my seat during the few bone-breaking moments that the creature inflicts on the crew. Its fluidity and strength was scary stuff to witness.
The other impressive aspects of the film are the zero gravity effects and the set design. Everything looks amazing, and the zero-G is just as realistic as Gravity or Apollo 13. The characters are unfortunately where the movie starts to break down. They just aren’t scared enough in this movie. The creature is absolutely terrifying, but when it takes out its first victim, the crew basically go back to work. Of course, they are trying to figure their situation and remain calm, but besides shedding a tear, they all seemed a little TOO calm about it.
It’s not until the last 20 minutes where the remaining crew is visibly shaking and terrified. It just left me wondering what took them so long to get scared? There is some fine acting from Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Hiroyuki Sanada, but the emotional moments just don’t have weight. There are two or three scenes where some of the crew are crying and it’s very serious, but the moment doesn’t feel earned. We don’t know these people, and unfortunately, we don’t ever really get to know them. It’s a fast-paced film that never lets up once the creature escapes. It’s not over 2 hours long, so the script just never really lets the characters become intriguing. You just hope they live because it’s basically humans vs. monster.
The ending of the film was somewhat of a surprise, although not entirely. It did score a few points with me, though, and it definitely elevated the movie overall. The booming score of Life was another pleasant surprise, adding a lot to the already tense final act. Stylistically, the movie looks great. I can’t say it doesn’t look beautiful. If I watch it again with lowered expectations, I could see enjoying it more. The gist here is that Life doesn’t take too many risks until the finale, and everything leading up to it is sometimes a little too basic monster movie stuff. It does avoid a lot of annoying tropes, and there are some genuinely terrifying scenes. In the end, it’s a serviceable sci-fi terror film that isn’t risky enough to become a cult classic, and isn’t bland enough to completely write off either. Time will tell. Unless we’re all wiped out by Mars dirt.