Life is at times frustrating and fascinating. There is a bit of rocky start and unsteady finish but the middle portion of the film is an exercise in pure tension and suspense. The tension is so palpable that I found myself forgiving the film for some of it shortcomings and can recommend it purely because of a solid 45 minutes that makes the film truly resonate.
The film follows a crew of six manning the station with the sole purpose of investigating Martian soil samples provided by a capsule that has returned from the Red Planet. Reflecting the “International” nature of the station, the mission specialists hail from four countries: the U.S. (Rory Adams, played by Ryan Reynolds, and Doctor David Jordan, played by Jake Gyllenhaal), the U.K. (Quarantine Expert Miranda North, played by Rebecca Ferguson, and biologist Hugh Derry, played by Ariyon Bakare), Russia (Commander Katerina Golovkin, played by Olga Dihovichnaya), and Japan (Sho Kendo, played by Hiroyuki Sanda). When they discover signs of life in the dirt, they nurse it out of suspended animation and give it a name (“Calvin”). Their delight at seeing “Calvin” grow and develop turns to alarm when it shows a tendency to be violent and displays surprising strength and intelligence. When procedures to keep it contained prove inadequate, the mission turns into a fight for life: six humans against one extraterrestrial, with the understanding that, to keep the creature from reaching Earth, all lives are expendable.
There is no denying that Life is a bit of an Alien clone. Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic has proven to be the template for many sci-fi films which have proven to be inadequate in comparison. The biggest compliment that I can give director Daniel Espinosa is that his clone is a cut above the rest. The director does nothing to hide his movie’s inspiration (several scenes include not so subtle references) but, armed with a script credited to Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, he uncovers a way for Life to give homage to its cinematic heritage, while attempting to break a bit of new ground.
The best thing about Life is also a bit of its weakness. When it’s being a science fiction film, it’s a damn good science fiction film and when it’s being a horror film, it’s a damn good horror film. The problem is the wedding of these two genres which proves to be a bit uneven. It wants to be a bit more cerebral and not rely completely on visceral thrills but when it does this, the pacing can be a bit off. This very evident pretty much from the start because it takes a bit for the film to get going. One could say that fans of either genres could be pleased but those looking for a more cerebral experience may be put off by the suspense the dominates the middle portion of the film and those looking just for those thrills may find the science and existential musings to be tiresome. I can respect what Espinosa was attempting to do but the result is a bit uneven.
The beats of the film may seem predictable but the specific notes aren’t. Working in its favor is that the characters are sufficiently developed and don’t really succumb to the typical trappings of the genre. You get the impression that no one is safe and that’s why the film raises the pulse when things begin to get out of hand. The director gets sufficient suspense from the situation while not being afraid to make a few daring choices. Espinosa establishes a serious enough tone that it never falls into being a campy retread of films that have come before it (the closest tone I can compare it to, along with Alien, is the film Solaris).
Special effects and set design are top-notch. The outside sequences aren’t abundant but they are realistic and the inside scenes are intensely claustrophobic. Film’s that take place in space have mined a high level of tension from the feeling of confinement and Life can be added to the list of movies that get it right. Creature design varies significantly from the Alien prototype we normally encounter in these films which is a good thing because the comparisons between the two films is already set in motion that it didn’t need another aspect to feel connected to its cinematic parent. Jon Ekstrand’s score adds to the darkness of the film but the biggest compliment is that it’s never overbearing and is used effectively throughout.
The actors deliver solid work from top to bottom. This is a role that Jake Gyllenhaal could play in his sleep but that doesn’t make his work here an less worthy of kudos. He provides a character we can relate to and he brings his natural likability to the role. Ryan Reynolds plays it straight here and reminds us, once again, that he isn’t just good at making us laugh and spouting off one liners. Again, the role isn’t a difficult one to essay, but he hits all the right beats to make the character work. The other four actors, although not as well-known, are equally solid and you find yourself caring about a positive outcome for all of them even though the escalating tension is proof that not everyone will be safe.
I really wish the film wasn’t plagued by initial pacing issues and an ending that feels a bit more predictable than a lot of what comes before it (I won’t spoil it here but I expected it to flip the script a bit). Because of these qualms Life falls short of greatness but what it does get right definitely makes it worthy of your attention. It’s a purely visceral experience that gives you the necessary heart palpitations you expect from the genre, even if it is a bit uneven and flawed.