I saw this movie alone at 4:20 (shut up) on a Tuesday, in an auditorium with a screen half the average size and no more than thirty seats. Only two were filled: one by myself, and the other by a sweet old woman sitting behind me who rustled loudly through her bag of popcorn for the duration of the film. As I entered the theater, which looked like the one they rent out for children’s birthday parties, it became abundantly clear to me how unnecessary this showtime was. And an hour and fifty minutes later when I left the theater, it was abundantly clear to me how unnecessary this movie is. Written by the duo who penned Zombieland (2009) and Deadpool (2016) (Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick), Life lacks the flair and originality that these two films bring to their respective genres. Perhaps this can be attributed to the film’s director, Daniel Espinosa, whose repertoire consists only of a handful of panned action thrillers. Or it could be that the film’s premise is simply too much of a cookie-cutter rehash of the ‘trapped in space’ horror tropes that have been done to death.
Six astronauts aboard the International Space Station receive a sample of Martian soil, which they’re tasked with studying. The crew’s biologist, Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), stimulates a cell from the sample by manipulating the atmosphere around it, and thus discovers the first living organism outside of Earth. The crew is understandably ecstatic and contact is made with Earth to break the exciting news. After a contest between American schools, the organism is named Calvin, a name that’s sure to send shivers down your spine. After some time of constant growth and positive results, Calvin is rendered dormant when an atmospheric accident sends it into a state of hibernation. When Hugh attempts to revive Calvin using a minor electric shock, it immediately becomes aggressive and attacks Hugh, crushing his hand and then escaping from the tank in which it was held. So in goes Rory (Ryan Reynolds), the masculine, hot-shot guy, to save the day by attempting to destroy Calvin with a flamethrower, which doesn’t affect the creature in the slightest. Rory gets Hugh out, but David (Jake Gyllenhaal) shuts Rory inside when Calvin latches onto his leg. But hey everything’s cool! Calvin’s still contained in the secure lab! That is until the flamethrower which is no longer in Rory’s hand just happens to float too close to a fire detector, in what I would call a ‘Final Destination-level bullshit chance occurrence.’ The detector opens an array of vents, thus allowing Calvin to escape into the ship. The plot from this point on is simply, ‘Where’s Calvin?’ It gets old quick.
One thing that Life does get right is cinematography. The film opens on a beautifully shot and choreographed long take that’s reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in the way that it’s used to kind of show off all the visual effects that they’re putting to use. The shot is long enough that it takes at least 30 seconds to realize, ‘Holy shit this has all been one shot,’ and then allows you to marvel at it for a few full minutes longer. I had gone into the film with low expectations, but this shot definitely gave me a glint of hope. Unfortunately, that hope didn’t last long.
From the first introduction, Life attempts to shove the ‘likeability’ of each character down the audience’s throat, and it immediately made me feel the opposite. The crew’s initial dialogue just screams “relate to us!”, “we’re so normal and fun!” It was almost like the first scene in a found footage film where each character addresses the camera directly, or a scene from Arrested Development where the Bluths attempt to appear normal and relatable. In any case, it definitely made the characters less compelling from the start, and in doing so diffused a lot of the film’s following tension.
My biggest complaint with this film by far is the fact that it’s just plain not scary. Or suspenseful. Or really anything for that matter. Calvin starts out looking something like Flubber and ends up, in his scariest form, resembling some sort of squid monster. So since the ‘monster’ isn’t scary, suspense is really the only avenue of inducing fear, or keeping the audience interested. But it simply isn’t there. Life fails where Alien (1979) excels, despite all the aspects that it’s ripped directly off from it. You’re just left wondering when Calvin’s gonna pop back up and kill another character that you really don’t care all that much about because you know you’re ‘supposed to.’
Life wears its influences on its sleeve, but doesn’t back up its laundry list of references with any substance or offer anything new to the genre. The visuals are probably the most entertaining part of the film, no matter how much they may be ripped directly from 2001 or Gravity (2013). But beautiful cinematography without a compelling story behind it can only keep a viewer interested for so long.