Scary, ironic, and exciting, Life takes staples of its genre and twists them with little ironies that make an old story feel new. Unlike last year’s Arrival, it champions cooperation but features an alien you would not want to come face-to-face with.
Life opens with the crew of the International Space Station receiving soil samples from Mars. While running tests on the samples, Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) finds what appears to be a single cell organism—proof of life on Mars. Further testing reveals that the organism—named Calvin—evolves quickly and is comprised of cells that each serve all functions. Calvin is at once all brain, all muscle and so on. At first, Calvin looks like animated, translucent seaweed. He’s kind of cute. Quickly, however, he reveals physical strength, intelligence and a survival drive that makes him a threat to everyone aboard the Space Station, and on Earth, if efforts at quarantine fail. It is up to astronauts Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sandana), Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) to understand Calvin so they can keep him in space.
On all levels, Life is derivative of other works in its genre. It’s a little Alien, a little Gravity, a little Apollo 13. Despite this lack of originality, I loved every minute of it. What the movie does, it does well. The monster is scary. The characters are compelling. The tension runs high.
To say that the movie is not original is not to say that it doesn’t still find some ways to take some storytelling risks. To start, it kills the character played by one of its top-billed actors early in the movie. To finish things, it ends on a note that I hoped for, dreaded, and was delighted to see. I won’t spoil that ending.
The screenplay is also laced with some delicious ironies and little musings about the nature of life, presented with a light touch. Perhaps the best, but also most heavy-handed, example of the irony is that an astronaut so jaded on the human race that he would rather stay in space offers to sacrifice himself for the rest of humanity. My favorite irony, however, is that the film starts out triumphantly, drawing on common rhetoric about space and setting the tone for a story about cooperation and heroism, but Life is ultimately about failures. Even when the heroes cooperate, their best efforts are often met with frustrating, violent results. The Space Station is held up as a symbol of international peace and teamwork, but life itself is often destructive, as Calvin makes abundantly clear. This twist makes the story feel fresh and exciting and stressful.
Special effects are not really my main focus in a movie. I often do not notice them unless they are exceptionally good or bad. Making movies set in space involves a lot of work to create the impression of a zero-gravity environment and this film does that well. I was more impressed, however, with the design of the monster. Because Calvin evolves and grows so quickly, the audience is treated to many different looks of the same creature. Watching Calvin change was one of my favorite parts of the film. From the single cell to the scary final scenes, there was continuity in the design, so it was plausible that all the different iterations were the same creature. Even though Calvin ends up looking a lot like other movie aliens, he is still scary and cool all at once.
The acting by the human cast is nothing to write home about, but it is compelling enough to tell the story well. The chemistry between the members of the team works, so it is believable that they have spent considerable time in space together and I grew to care about the characters thanks to good writing and good acting. In addition to the acting of the ensemble, there is some good diversity in the characters, including a scientist who brings issues of disability to the story—an unusual component to a movie set in space.
So, Life is not the most inventive alien movie to come out in years. I still really enjoyed it and was impressed by the screenplay and its fraught ending. I rate Life 3.5/5 stars.
Life was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and directed by Daniel Espinosa. It runs 1 hour and 43 minutes and is rated R for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror.
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