(2017—Director: Daniel Espinosa)
★★★ (out of 5 stars)
With the Alien franchise delivering a new installment in a few months and just a few years removed from the emotional and visual roller-coaster that was 2013’s Gravity, I felt positive about this new ensemble sci-fi thriller directed by Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House, Child 44). It boasts an international ensemble cast, which includes Ryan Reynolds reuniting with his Deadpool screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and was forecast with memorable trailers—many centering on the moment where the cute little alien creature turns on the scientist studying it while his crewmates watch. Either a thrilling b-movie or a compact, ambitious, and intelligent sci-fi thriller could result from this venture. Having now experienced Life (the film, not my own), what irks me and will irk me for some time is that the film tries to be both and barely manages to be tolerable.
Set in the present day, Life follows a six-member, multinational crew currently inhabiting the International Space Station, tasked with retrieving a returning capsule from Mars and examining the soil samples contained within while in Earth orbit. British biologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) manages to extract a dormant, single-celled organism from one of the samples and revive it, much to the delight of his crewmates. The organism matures in a short amount of time into a multi-celled, stimulus-sensitive organism that quarantine officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) notes is “all muscle, all brain, and all eye.” The schoolchildren of America, monitoring the mission from the surface, decide to call the organism “Calvin”. Several days later, when an atmospheric accident in the lab causes Calvin—now a palm-sized, fluorescent, flower-shaped creature—to become dormant once again, Dr. Derry suggests prodding Calvin with a mild electric shock. The rest of the crew—Russian Commander Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovnichaya), American medical officer Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Japanese engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and cocky American pilot Rory “Roy” Adams (Ryan Reynolds) watch from the opposite side of the glass as Dr. Derry inserts his hands into the protective gloves stretching into the quarantine cage and begins to re-animate Calvin with the electric shocks.
What follows is every astronaut’s nightmare—a slaughterhouse in space, where there’s nowhere to escape, a lifeless void separates them from potential rescue, and much of the crew’s time and mental power is spent early on trying to also keep the expensive house intact if possible.
From the trailers, one can grasp a modern-day mashup of both Alien, the 1979 sci-fi horror film by director Ridley Scott, and Gravity, the 2013 space thriller from director Alfonso Cuarón, with the multinational crew from director Danny Boyle’s 2007 film Sunshine tossed in as well (Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada appears in both Sunshine and this). The opening sequence in which the crew scrambles to secure the approaching Mars capsule that has sustained small asteroid hits during its transit certainly emulates the opening to Cuarón’s film with its smooth long-take approach and well-choreographed blocking of actors. From there, the story coasts through the first month of their orbital mission, until Calvin’s decisive electric shock treatment.
About the time that the shock treatment leads Calvin to turn against the crew, I start to sense that director Espinosa has yet to fully deliver the dramatic thrills necessary for me to become invested in the ensemble’s plight. The rest of the film, outside of the opening capsule retrieval sequence, offers close camerawork and editing that generates a fast pace, unlike the spacious environments and ominous, patient progression of Alien. This fast pace, furthermore, limits drastically the screentime for the proper fleshing out of the individual crew members, especially when one can tell who’s most likely to survive the end of the film based on star power (or a promotional image, like the one above). Compare that to Gravity, which centers almost entirely on Sandra Bullock’s character.
The problem ultimately lies with the rudimentary treatment of the characters, many of whom I barely remember upon leaving the theater aside from some basic details, the manners of dying, and who survives. Life attempts to bring together a patiently layered ensemble showcase with what’s basically a one-woman show, not to mention a complex horror think-piece that hides the monster instead of showing it (like in this film) with a simple journey of getting from A to B that bolsters incredible technical craft. Even for a skillful director, it’s almost impossible to marry the approaches to those two types of stories without compromising on character development.
The instinctive reaction to fall back on older films suggests another central flaw of Life—it falls short in offering anything original and memorable. As a sci-fi thriller, it meets modest ambitions by evoking other cinematic sci-fi landmarks and little else, and audiences are mostly just along for the ride, rarely treated to a thorough build-up of tension, much less fear, when registering the characters’ choices. It comes off as forced and unimpressive when the end of act two, deus ex machina moment of rest for the surviving crew members gravitates around a children’s nighttime story and not a meditation on fate, purpose, and perhaps God’s hand in their eventual demise. The sole displays of power in this film are the gruesome, bloody, traumatic deaths—the kind common in a tired slasher film, which alone says enough.
What, then, is Life? Life reminds filmmakers and audiences that they’ll need more than just the concept to create a truly horrifying work of cinematic sci-fi, even though the concept tends to deliver a competent work anyway. Competency, however, can only last so long and one can guess that director Daniel Espinosa and company would’ve preferred not only the commercial success (having amassed only half of its production budget in its opening weekend worldwide box office), but the lasting legacy that will most likely elude this film by 2017’s end.