Everything about Life (2017) – the synopsis, the trailer, the poster, and the promotions – make the film out to be a second cousin to the Alien franchise. The film sets up a cast of six astronauts on the International Space Station investigating rock samples from Mars and discovering the first proof of alien life – a small one cell creature hidden in the rocks. Before you know it, the alien grows, attacks, and escapes, picking off the crew one-by-one. Yeah, sounds familiar. And it is, blending Alien with Gravity. Director Daniel Espinosa handles the camera with finesse and a delicate touch, allowing it to flow along with the cast in the weightlessness of space. The deaths are relatively tame in comparison to Alien but not lacking impact and punch. The first death is particularly gruesome, more in what it implies than what it displays. The alien creature itself is fascinating with an otherworldly method to its movement – more like an angry sea creature than the Scott and Cameron Xenomorphs. The music nails the tone and hammers the final moments perfectly. The film is surprising in its approach to discovering life beyond earth and is well worth being discovered as well.
The script from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick – the duo behind the Deadpool script – begins with the crew of the international space station racing to snag the approaching unmanned space craft returning from Mars with a collection of valuable soil samples. Turns out it collided with space debris and is a bit damaged and slightly off course. After the exciting and well crafted introduction to the surroundings, the cast, and the environment, the story focuses on lead scientist Hugh Derry’s (Ariyon Bakare) discovery and investigation of the alien hidden in the samples. Officer Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) is glued to the process with a keen eye on the protocols she developed and is in charge of keeping in place. Protocol one is the cage. Protocol two is the laboratory. Protocol three is better left unspoken. Not only does Derry accelerate the creature’s growth, he also discovers the beast is highly intelligent. Soon, the monster is free, loose on the ship and killing those who threaten its survival.
The cast for Life is excellent with Ariyon Bakare, Rebecca Ferguson, and Hiroyuki Sanada standing out. Ryan Reynolds is his usual smart-ass self but far tamer than his Wade Wilson persona. Jake Gyllenhaal is the technical star of the film (along with Ferguson) but is also the film’s weakest link. There is something lazy to his performance but it doesn’t come across as disinterest, it appears to be a choice. In the end, the decision works, but for some of the earlier scenes, his approach is far less charismatic than the role needs. Olga Dihovichnaya is the ship’s captain with a take-charge personality, much like Ellen Ripley. Her encounter with the alien is every bit as frightening as Ryan Reynolds’ confrontation earlier in the film. They all work well together and play a convincing crew both in their efforts and character’s scientific objectives while allowing for a few conflicts and grievances to separate them apart. When the alien breaks loose and starts eliminating the crew, they’ve grown just enough to worry for their survival. While a little more care in establishing their motivations and characteristics would have benefited the emotional impact, it would have jeopardized the pacing which is often a bit slower than the film desires.
The alien is far different than most of the otherworldly creatures Hollywood is serving up these days. The design is a welcomed variation to those visuals. The film establishes the zero-gravity the crew are living in, providing the creature with the opportunity to be far more acrobatic in its movements. It works best when it seems to swim or fly through the ship. The evolution of the creature is equally intriguing as is grows from a single cell to a small glob with long hair-like tentacles to a basketball-sized, space starfish with a mean disposition. The creature is given the name “Calvin” by school kids on Earth and is often refereed to as such. One of the few times it doesn’t work as well is when the film makers resort to Calvin-vision which is far less interesting than seeing the creature snake through the ship – especially once the creature is fully revealed. The POV shot seems unnecessary. Regardless, the effects that bring Calvin to life are entirely convincing and well conceived.
The director, Daniel Espinosa, finds a number of creative ways to work within the confines of the spacecraft. Early on in the film, he propels the camera throughout the ship in what amounts to a long tracking shot establishing the space station, the weightless environment, the enclosed space, and the characters. Not an easy task. In another shot, an early death scene, he opts for a long shot focused on the character as horrible things happen within their body. The visual effects of fluids in space are fully, gruesomely realized. The result is horrific, subtly violent, and a bit hard to watch. He also nails the ending of the film setting up a classic conclusion with a terrific pull-away shot, great sound, and a great soundtrack. While in space, no one can hear you scream, but on screen in the theater, that very scream is full of horror and dread as the accompanying shot hammers home like nails across a chalkboard.
Much of the success of Life is summed up in the film’s final moments. It leads up to a conclusion that is very similar to the downbeat endings upon which many films in the Seventies would land. Here, that ending solidifies the horror established in the previous 90 minutes. Life is a fun B-movie with a great cast and a promising director. It’s premise is overly familiar but the design of the creature sets it apart. Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rebecca Ferguson lead the cast while Hiroyuki Sanada threatens to steal the film. If only the screenwriters had given Sanada more to work with. While the alien is unique, the surrounding premise is less so, feeling like a cross between Alien (and many Alien rip-offs) and Gravity. It fails to live up to either of those films. With those comparisons, the film struggles to find its own identity much like The Belko Experiment struggled to separate itself from Battle Royale. Life manages to creep close to the films that inspired it, just as The Shallows managed to do last summer in comparison to Jaws. In the end, especially due to the end, Life is a terrific B-movie alien film that deserves to be seen and enjoyed.
Life (4 / 5)