Hey kids, interested in an Alien knockoff that has less thrills, less excitement, and an inferior creature? If the answer is yes, then let me tell you about Life!
Here’s the plot: Scientists on the International Space Station (ISS) retrieve a probe from Mars which has samples for them to study. One of the samples contains a microscopic cellular organism. The scientists’ experiments help the creature—dubbed “Calvin” by elementary school students in a public relations stunt—grow at an exponential rate. This doesn’t really seem to concern them. When it attacks one of the scientists out of instinct, the others don’t immediately quarantine the creature. In fact, the guy who says they shouldn’t be getting so chummy with the alien is the one who rushes in to be the first to try and kill it. And when the creature kills that guy—in a very cool death scene, I must say—the other scientists don’t immediately blast the thing into space. So, the rest of the film is waiting out the inevitable as the crew tries to defend themselves against this seemingly indestructible alien.
The film’s premise is fine—it was a neat idea to see scientists deal with this situation as opposed to space truckers (Alien) or space marines (Aliens). The problem is, it appears that the crew has no hope of killing or hurting this thing and that ruins all the tension, turning the film into a bore. The characters, especially Rebecca Ferguson’s CDC expert on biological firewalls, are always harping about how Calvin needs to be contained and they try several things to accomplish this, but when the ultimate threat is this unstoppable killing machine getting down to the planet, they make a lot of decisions that we’ll call…questionable throughout the film. Once they seem to have the problem buttoned up, they do something to undo it. Oh, that guy who got separated from the crew is trying to get back inside the safe area? Too bad. I’m not letting that death machine have even a hope of getting inside. So, of course, they do it anyway, screwing up their solution. The creature’s got a hold of someone on a spacewalk? You’re dead already. Just launch yourself into space with the thing on your leg and save everyone else. Nah, I’ll try to get back inside the space station, so this thing can cause more death and destruction. Moves like this will have you shaking your head in disappointment instead of gripping the armrests in terror.
All the technical tricks that Director Daniel Espinosa employs to make the crew appear weightless in the station are great and overall the film is really well-made. It’s the script, however, from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick that leaves much to be desired. This isn’t a terrible movie—it’s just okay—but another rewrite could have made it great. I like the ending—although Dirty A saw it coming. It was a nice capper, but in retrospect, it’s the only way the film could have ended and it made me hate the script more because every move that the characters make—logical or otherwise—seems done in order to facilitate that ending. It was almost like the characters read the end of the script and said, “Okay, let’s make a lot of dodgy decisions to get here.”
I thought Ryan Reynolds was the best part of the cast, so of course, they Executive Decision him twenty minutes into the thing. The rest of the cast, anchored by Jake Gyllenhaal and Ferguson, is good, but Reynolds was easily the most likable character. I liked Ariyon Bakare’s paraplegic scientist and Hiroyuki Sanada as a new father. The script does a nice job of giving them emotional arcs for the audience to fix onto. Olga Dihovichnaya plays the commander of the mission, but the script doesn’t give her a whole lot of character to hold onto. Gyllenhaal has the interesting quirk that his character prefers space to Earth, but it’s never really explored and, like everything else in the film, felt like it was added only to justify his role at the end of the film.
Overall, I didn’t hate Life, but it was definitely a disappointment. Espinosa shows that he can definitely make a well-crafted film, but a great cast is wasted in a sci-fi thriller that actually turns out to be quite boring in parts. Catch it on cable when it surfaces, but there’s no real need to seek this one out in the theater.