“Like catching a great ballgame between two teams you don’t care about.”
by Ken Bakely
On balance, Daniel Espinosa’s Life is a decently entertaining thriller, one where you know what’s going to happen from the moment the scientist who looks at the small, comatose organism from Mars pokes it with an electric prod. It doesn’t like that. And that’s when it starts to grow. It keeps getting bigger. And it makes these awful squishing sounds. Padding through the spaceship, it looks like a starfish made of Jell-O with vivid veins and arteries to boot, and once it escapes quarantine – oh man. Through air vents, across the walls, it gets around. Where is it now? Look behind you.
First there were six astronauts up there, on a pioneering mission to take and study samples from the red planet. And we know there won’t be six for long. But Life does confound us, in the sense that it plays with our expectations as to who will die, and in what order. The script was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who did some more obvious tinkering with genre traps in Deadpool. Here, they show their ability to sober up and go for the kill. The fateful man who begins the creature’s reign of terror is the one most attached to it – his name is Hugh (Ariyon Bakare), and he’s the only one whose biological expertise could even match up with the skills needed to evaluate this alien life. He likes the nickname that it’s been given – Calvin – and so of course it attacks him first.
When Calvin claims a victim, Espinosa is at his best. He uses the zero-gravity setting for all its worth. Liters of gore are spilled in Life, but it never hits the floor, and floats in midair, coming forth out of a wound, but never quite leaving the body. We look on, captivated by the beautiful horrors the film shows us, and then switch back to the hapless humans still alive and kicking. Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya), the mission commander, tries her best to keep a lid on things, but such a task is well beyond the capacities of anyone. When someone, monitoring a slightly awry space walk in the first scene, says that great action movie line, “We weren’t trained for this!” (or something to that effect), we appreciate the dramatic irony, even if nothing has actually happened so far.
However, there is a point when the full-throttle race of the plot gives way, and very little is left. The central conceit of Life is that Calvin is an intelligent being. There are countless scenes in which it sneaks around and looks for prey, and a few POV shots when it scans out droplets of blood and chases them to the source. Calvin becomes an object, rather than a villain. In one scene, it attaches to a spacewalking astronaut’s suit, and applies enough pressure that it breaks a coolant tube. Liquid gushes into the person’s helmet, and they drown. The film makes it so powerful that there’s a Sisyphean undertone to the protagonists as they try to fight it. Later on, when the on-board medical officer (Jake Gyllenhaal), figures out enough about its inner-workings to devise a plan that just might work in containing it, the idea feels forced into existence, an unexpected moment of intellectual superiority over a being that is otherwise made omnipotent.
The problem goes deeper. We’re never given the opportunity to get to know these characters, and so they’re just faces, scrambling around the ship. Watching Life is like catching a great ballgame between two teams you don’t care about. You admire the skill and craft involved, but you don’t care who comes out on top. The end of the movie sneaks a good final swipe past our pre-written notions, and quite plainly spells out who won the battle, but it wouldn’t have made much of an emotional difference if it had gone the other way. Espinosa gives you a well-developed villain that you could never root for, and underdeveloped humans that you’re supposed to root for. It all becomes a nondescript blend of events.
There are some marvels. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey lights the setting in unsettlingly neutral whites and yellows. Splashes of color come from the computer monitors that often spring into frantic alerts as Calvin upends the crew. It’s also competently acted, as the cast plays around in their outer-space setting with appropriate “haunted house” fear. Yet many movies can boast such assets. Every review has pointed out Life’s similarities to Alien, but even that film had numerous inspirations. Instead, Ridley Scott’s classic is remembered because it was able to introduce things that resonated throughout culture. Espinosa doesn’t go down that path. The occasional glimpses of subversion are just that. He gives us some baseline shocks, and stops there.