From Upstream Color, Ex Machina, The Martian, A Scanner Darkly, Moon to blockbusters like Edge of Tomorrow, Snowpiercer, and Inception, the past ten or so years have seen an unexpectedly satisfying number of intelligent science fiction movies. Just last year we had perhaps the most intelligent one of them all in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. So it was inevitable that a studio would try to stand out from the lot by regulating space once again to a place where no one can hear you scream. I’ve seen my fair share of terror in space movies. I grew up loving Alien, Planet of the Vampires, Event Horizon, Pitch Black, and I even kind of dug Pandorum. So even though Life, the new film from Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) and Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, occasionally attempts to stand above said titles, there’s no denying that it’s a B-movie through and through.
The spirit of Alien is most certainly alive within Life’s opening shot. Long and slow camera pans show the vast nothingness of space until we come across a space station hovering over Earth. Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey (Godzilla) has a lot of fun with the anti-gravity nature of the station. He uses the camera to float along with the characters while depicting the station’s layout. We are then introduced to the crew, a small rag tag band of scientists played by a few recognizable names. The presence of such star power combined with our familiarity with the genre allows us to easily identify what kind of characters we will be following. We have the main protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal), the mother hen captain (Rebecca Ferguson), the wise-cracking spacewalker (Ryan Reynolds), the too curious for his own good scientist (Ariyon Bakare), the likeable wildcard (Hiroyuki Sanada), and sure to die second female (Olga Dihovichnaya).
Life’s plot is unapologetically bare bones. Crew discovers alien life. They bring the alien life on board to study it. Things go wrong, and one by one the lifeform attacks and dispatches each crew member, proving to be more than a match for them. In order for a movie like this to keep us engaged, there has to be a few things that work. The first is the creature. Nicknamed “Calvin,” the creature is actually pretty cool looking. It crawls around the space station like a giant amoeba, so don’t expect any HR Giger complex designs here. Once you realize that Calvin is immune to almost any type of weapon and that its Hulk-like structure allows it to grow the more it gets attacked, the film becomes less suspenseful and more predictable. But the third act is satisfying fun nonetheless.
The second element that has to work is the music score. Jon Ekstrand mostly succeeds in creating tension by keeping the music soft and unnerving at times, but he too often breaks the suspense with loud Hans Zimmer-style siren horns. It is effective, but not as effective as silence. The last element has to do with the characters’ intelligence. For the most part, these characters seem like intelligent people who know how to stick to protocol when they need to, and logically deduce a problem when protocol doesn’t apply. Unlike Prometheus, which seemed to decide that knowledge of basic science didn’t have to apply to its characters, there are very few, if any, moments where I found myself laughing at the way science was treated in Life.
In these respects, Life works as an efficient if not forgettable Alien knock off. It succeeds as a gory, suspenseful thrill ride with a serviceable creature. Where the film gets silly is in certain scenes where the writers are clearly trying to make Life seem like it’s about more. Tedious lines of dialogue that attempt to explain Calvin’s motivations like, “It doesn’t hate us. It just knows that if it wants to survive, it has to kill us,” or flat out exposition like, “I feel nothing but hate,” exist only as individual scenes, since the underlying subtext is never presented as a constant theme throughout the film. Unfortunately, these scenes do the opposite of their intentions. They actually make the film feel dumber.
It’s unfortunate that Life is being released a couple months before Alien: Covenant. For those who end up in the theatre, Life will feel like nothing more than the opening band warming you up for the big headliner. But then again, Life isn’t able to do anything different or better than the film it so obviously emulates. No matter how different the creature looks, the narrative beats are all the same. At least Life is a competently made horror flick, which makes the experience entertaining albeit disposable.