IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 104 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A multinational six-member crew aboard the International Space Station performs a successful capture of a space probe returning from Mars with a soil sample. The crew’s job is to study the sample, which could prove to be the first evidence of extraterrestrial life. After extracting a single cell from the sample, biologist Hugh Derry is able to revive the dormant organism with atmospheric adjustments and glucose. Named Calvin by some school children in American, it quickly grows into a multi-celled organism, reacts to stimuli, and evolves further – eventually becoming hostile and crushing Hugh’s hand….
I can’t be the only who thinks that movie titles can be so short, dull and nondescript these days, at least for major releases of the horror and science fiction genres. Many decades ago Life would have been called Attack Of The Slime Monster or something, and it still possibly wouldn’t be quite so silly. Boy do people in this movie act like total idiots. Somebody is having their hand crushed by the monster and everybody else stands there bickering rather than rushing in to help. Somebody else is hiding in a sleep pod but, even with the monster trapped in one area, nobody goes to look for him. Three characters are believably hanging on for dear life when a door is opened, but a few seconds later are moving around as if they’re in normal gravity. One character actually allows this deadly, murderous monster to crawl onto her. And so forth. Maybe that’s what being in outer space does to you. And this is a film from Rhett Reese and Pal Wernick the writers of Zombieland where its characters behaved like complete and utter dunces throughout.
I’m glad I’ve got the biggest flaw with this movie out the way though, because otherwise it’s a pretty solid science fiction horror that does grip and even scare in quite a few places. Much was made of its resemblance to Alien even when the second trailer came out, and yes it is heavily indebted to Ridley Scott’s classic, to the point where certain moments are clearly being rehashed, and also to the point where inevitably unfavourable comparisons have to be made. However, it does have a somewhat different look and feel to it, and there are enough differences in the story and in its handling to very much justify its existence. After all, Alien was quite obviously [despite this being denied by many of its makers] inspired by It! The Terror From Beyond Space and Planet Of The Vampires anyway. Life has enough tension, frights and thrills to make it a decent night out at the movies, and, while this probably wouldn’t be a problem for many others, my biggest concern – the fact that was written by the duo behind not just Zombieland but also Deadpool – proved not to as big a problem as I expected [aside from what I mentioned in the above paragraph of this review] as this particularly film is free of smugness and snarkiness except for a few brief moments featuring Ryan Reynolds’s character. And it’s not trying to be funny and almost completely failing.
A very cliched but still impressive opening of the Earth being gradually revealed by the lights of the space station, leads us into a nice single take sequence showing us the geography of the surroundings which will get more and more foreboding as things subsequently get worse and worse, and then an opening action beat of Reynolds’s character Rory “Roy” Adams single handedly capturing a probe. We aren’t allowed to get up close, instead viewing what he’s doing from the point of view of the other characters, which actually works very well. It’s hard to be impressed by CGI effects these days, especially in this kind of film where we haven’t long had Gravity, but right from the offset everything looks pretty convincing. Unfortunately the characters don’t really register much as rounded human beings, Reese and Wenick being content to give them token beats to differentiate them. Rory has a Ryan Reynolds mouth because he’s played by Ryan Reynolds – and that’s about it for him. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Dr. David Jordan is an ex-soldier badly effected by war who likes being in outer space more than being on earth. Japanese Engineer Sho Murakami has a wife back home who’s soon to give birth. British Biologist Hugh Derry was wheelchair bound but can move around fine in zero gravity. And the two women – British Dr. Miranda North and Russian Katerina Golovkina- are pretty much defined by their accents. Every now and again Life does pause for a few minutes to half heartedly try to let us get to know this lot a bit, but it’s nothing like [and I’m going to try not to compare Life to Alien too often] the first few scenes of Alien where we hung out with these grumpy but very human characters and got a real sense of who they were by just seeing how they acted around each other. The cast do try their best though to give some life to these people – Gyllenhaal especially delivers another terrific performance – and do succeed in making us care a bit about them as the film goes on.
The retrieved organism, described by Miranda as “all muscle, all brain and all eye”, and named Calvin by a load of school children in a ridiculously cheesy and out of place scene, soon evolves and proves to be dangerous when it crushes one character’s hand in a genuinely uncomfortable moment [despite nobody helping the guy], which is then topped by a commendably gross dissolution of a lab rat. It escapes from containment and then it’s business as expected as the crew try to survive with a deadly creature who intends to kill them off one by one to survive, and a creature who of course seems impervious to any conventional ways of killing a living being. It’s really closer to It! The Terror From Beyond Space than Alien at times, though this creature is a jellyfish-like thing that later sports a kind of head but is only very vaguely humanoid in its later stages. Its slimy texture really is quite unappealing in a good way, though I doubt Calvin will be remembered much as a memorable monster in years to come, and unfortunately the writers haven’t really worked out a lot of its details, nor can they seem to decide on things like whether it can survive without oxygen or not. The fact that nearly every scene appears to be the result of a bad decision by somebody putting everybody else at risk is compensated for by the fast pacing and some moments really being bed-wettingly tense. Now Life’s second trailer hinted a little too strongly at later developments in the story so if you’re like me you’ll be able to guess much of what happens, but there’s a surprisingly strong sense of impending doom, an equally surprising number of moments near the end where characters actually think about what they’re doing and amazingly do the right thing, and one genuine surprise [well, it was to me] in the final scene which is quite cleverly set up.
Most of the deaths hold back on being as gruesome as they could have been but the staging is strong and we do get an inordinate amount of blood floating around in zero gravity throughout, something we don’t tend to see very often. The interiors are of the conventional kind though generally believable except for the laboratory which seems curiously lo-tech, and it helps that they are realised through actual sets rather than CGI. Director Daniel Espinosa, whose previous work that I’ve seen I’ve rather enjoyed even though none of it has been even slightly outstanding, only once relies on a jump scare [and even that wouldn’t be much without the obligatory musical sting backing it up], and focuses on trying to making the viewer feel uncomfortable with lots of quite nerve-wrecking moments when characters find themselves trapped with the monster, though after a while the film does seem to be repeating the same couple of scenes over and over again. All the mayhem is totally visible though – no Child 44-style vomit-cam for Espinosa here – and I’d like to see him next do a horror film perhaps without science fiction trappings [though Reese and Wernick have already talked about the possibility of Life sequels], as I think with a good screenwriter[s] he could really come up with something very strong indeed.
In the end Life doesn’t really have quite enough to make it stand out, and is sometimes truly dumb without having quite enough ‘B’ movie-style conviction to not make that matter too much, but there were passages where this reviewer was genuinely on the edge of his seat and the film was obviously working in the way intended – and when you watch as many alien and monster movies as me then that’s quite an achievement. No, Life doesn’t really compare with Alien [though I’m one of those oddballs who has always thought The Thing to be the superior picture anyway], but it doesn’t really disgrace it. Consider it more as a big budget version of all those cheapo Alien knock-offs that came out in the few years following that film’s release, and it holds up quite well.