A team of six scientists aboard the International Space Station discover a rapidly evolving life form that caused extinction on Mars, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth.
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
The story of having a malicious alien loose on a spaceship has been periodically revisited by Hollywood over the decades. And why not, as films based on this storyline have been fairly consistent in terms of entertainment value at the very least. One can go back as far as It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) as probably the first example of this story. Films like The Green Slime (1968), Alien (1979), Alien: Resurrection (1997), and any number of Corman knockoffs of Alien from the 80’s like Galaxy Of Terror (1981) and Forbidden World (1982) are all examples of this plot. Director Daniel Espinosa and writers Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick are the latest story tellers to give this tried and true plot a go with Life, a film that succeeds for the most part, but falls short of greatness thanks to a few miscues.
In a novel twist, Life doesn’t take place in some far flung futuristic setting. It all happens in the present, and on the International Space Station, where six scientists are charged with corralling a wayward Mars probe that was thrown off its course by a meteor shower. Scientist Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds) mans a giant robotic arm , and manages to grab the probe as it approaches the space station. Once secured, the soil samples that the probe was carrying are removed and studied by researcher Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare). Derry discovers what seems to be a mass of cells that form a sort of protozoan life form. Initially inert, it comes to life after adjusting the oxygen/carbon dioxide levels in the chamber where it’s being studied. Derry immediately realizes that it’s basically all muscle and brain cells (essentially making it really strong and smart). But as it’s barely the size of a bean sprout, it doesn’t seem to pose much of a threat to anyone. But it soon goes into a deep hibernation, and fearful of it dying, Derry decides to give it a mild electrical shock to wake it up.
Big mistake. The bean sprout (now named “Calvin”), wakes up all right, and it’s pretty pissed off. It sprouts a series of tentacle like arms, and grabs onto Derry’s hand – crushing it. It then escapes the confines of the room it’s kept in, and all hell breaks loose as it systematically bumps off the remaining scientists one by one. The scientists aren’t trained to fight off alien life forms, so they have to use their wits, and their knowledge of the space station to battle the ever evolving creature. So, if you’re familiar with the films I mentioned earlier, then this story is one that you’ll immediately be familiar with. In addition to Reynolds and Bakare, Life features Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. David Jordan, Rebecca Ferguson as team leader Miranda North, Hiroyoki Sanada as Dr. Sho Murakami, and Olga Dihovichnaya as Dr. Ekaterina Golovkina.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first. Life begins very quickly, with director Espinosa going from zero to sixty pretty rapidly. And the cast is up to the challenge with everyone filling in their roles very convincingly. All of the roles feel lived in, as if the actors really have been on the space station for a really long time. Calvin appears rather quickly as well, and although his initial appearance is as a clear, fleshy starfish type of creature, he quickly evolves into a darker hued, especially angry looking cephalopod that is about as unfriendly as can be. The set design, special FX, and choreography are all first rate, and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey does a marvelous job of making everything look appropriately weathered, yet still cool in a space station-y kind of way. Espinosa does a really good job of keeping everything moving as well, once it gets started, Life never really slows down. There are no slow spots to be found here.
But that leads me to the first problem I have with the film. The script doesn’t really give us much of a look into the characters backstories, we never really find out what makes them tick. There are some tantalizing glimpses into a few of their backgrounds though. Gyllenhaal’s character has been in the space station longer than anyone else ever has, his reasoning being that he “Doesn’t like what we do to each other down there”. Dr. Murakami is about to become a father, and Derry doesn’t have the use of his legs (although whether he was born like that, or if was due to an accident is never discussed). But that’s about it, Reynolds is essentially playing the same happy go lucky guy he almost always plays, Ferguson and Dihovichnaya play strong female roles, but they’re really not given all too much to do save for stare grimly at computer screens, and scream.
In addition, once Calvin is revealed, it seems to be immediately smarter than everyone on board. Now I can understand if it learned slowly as the film progressed, but as soon as it sprouts those tentacle like appendages, it seems to know more about the space station than the scientists do. This seems to be a trope of this sub genre, Ridley Scott’s Alien was pretty darn smart. So was every xenomorph in the films I mentioned earlier. But Calvin is especially bright, and he really does seem to be a lot smarter than the established scientists are. That aspect of the script felt rather contrived to me. The script also makes Calvin pretty much impervious to everything thrown at it, so it’s smarter than the humans, and nothing they have handy can slow it down. Scripters Reese and Wernick put the humans behind the eight ball almost as soon as the film starts, giving them little to no chance to defeat the creature.
Of course, a hopeless battle leads to a few of the scientists sacrificing themselves in order to slow Calvin down. This is expected behavior in a script like this, but the sacrifices seem hollow considering how omnicient Calvin seems to be. Dr. Derry postulates that Mars had life, until Calvin and his kind wiped them out. So they all decide that there’s no way that he can make it back to earth. Dr. North does have orders to follow in case of such an emergency that she keeps to herself until late in the film (much like Ash did in Alien). But by the time she divulges those orders, it’s almost too late. The characters also make some really stupid choices that just don’t seem to jibe with what real people would do. Derry in particular, does something that not only makes no sense, the script doesn’t even explain how he did it. My other problem was with Jon Ekstrand’s score, which never stops, and is way too bombastic for what’s happening on screen most of the time. Life would’ve benefited from a few stretches of silence to augment its scenes of tension.
What Life turns out to be is an especially grim Sci-Fi/Horror flick – and this isn’t a bad thing. Most films of this ilk have a happy ending, but this one ends on a downbeat Twilight Zone-ish note. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much telegraphed a few minutes earlier, but it still works because it’ll come as unexpected to most viewers. Life does what it does in a straightforward manner, and is a fairly taut and tense Sci-Fi thriller for the most part. It runs into a few bumps on the road to it’s dark conclusion, but strong performances, and amazing FX work take up most of the slack. Despite my problems with it, it’s still worthy of your attention.
Life – 3.5 out of 5 shrouds.