Movie Review: Life

Lifeless drama on the International Space Station copies too much from other films

Directed by Daniel Espinosa
With Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya

There has been a trend recently for science fiction to be a bit intelligent, looking at some real problems that space crews might face or how people could deal with the peaceful arrival of aliens. But the new film Life is a throwback, with a good cast burdened by a highly derivative script that seems to be an unauthorized remake of Alien, with bits of other films tossed in.

Space offers the possibility of endless wonder, but is also offers everything one needs for horror. There is potential danger everywhere. Options for escape are limited. And there is little hope of anyone coming to the rescue. The filmmakers took the easy route, and threw endless wonder under the bus after a few minutes.

There is a promising start. Potential life has been discovered on Mars by a probe, and authorities on Earth decide wisely not to bring it back there. Instead the payload from the probe is sent to the International Space Station. Six crew members have been preparing for months for this event.

After a pretty standard action scene with the docking, one of the crew examines the samples and finds a single hibernating cell. British scientist Hugh Derry (played by Ariyon Bakare) coaxes it back into life, and it starts to grow.

There is still hope that this will be an intelligent film about the first encounter with non-terrestrial life and what that means philosophically. But the film goes for cheap horror thrills instead.

The lab that the crew set up is just woefully inadequate in terms of security, and that is obvious to any casual observer. Derry is also way too lax, treating the alien as it was a common flower blossom rather than an unknown life form that could be worse that the plague.

There seems to be absolutely no plan of what to do with the life form, called Calvin, after it is examined, and no procedures in place for dealing with it if it turns out to be toxic or hostile, despite the alleged months of preparations.

There is some talk of safety protocols and “firewalls” to contain it, but these are about as useful as Emmentaler cheese. The lab security, which wouldn't pass muster in a high school physics class, turns out to be useless.

The story goes into free fall as the cast struggles to contain Calvin, ignoring obvious solutions and generally running around in a panic.

It isn't that the battle with the alien isn't interesting, it is just that it offers nothing new to anyone who has seen one of these space horror films before. Scenes seem to be copied directly from Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986), as well as John Carpenter's The Thing (1982). Little Shop of Horrors (1986) is also brought to mind, but thankfully without the songs.

The monster is a bit better due to advances in CGI, but partway through the designers change the monster from a somewhat scary translucent blobby flower, which has a suitably otherworldly look, to a laughably unimpressive transparent bird for no reason.

The cast falls into the standard roles. Aside from Ariyon Bakare, there is Ryan Reynolds is the somewhat working-class technician Roy Adams, offering a bit of humor at least at the start. Jake Gyllenhaal is Dr. David Jordan, who feels more at home in space than on Earth. Rebecca Ferguson is Dr. Miranda North, who was supposed to ensure the security of the station and who continues to try to take charge, despite her obvious failure. To represent the Eastern bloc on the Space Station there is Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerina Golovkin. She tries to be sympathetic to give the audience a character to latch onto. Japan is represented by Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Kendo, a rather quiet expert on technical aspects of the ship.

Once the monster gets out, the film turns into a game of attrition, as the monster targets the crew one by one. Somehow, this single cell has multiplied into something with great intelligence as it can navigate the ship with no map and cause all kinds of havoc. Perhaps it is too intelligent for a blob of undifferentiated cells.

The film looks great, with a solid rendition of the Space Station. The cast floats in zero gravity for much of the film, and the effect is very convincing. The international flavor of the cast also works well, with a few minor culture clashes. There is an impressive space walk and other well-executed technical feats. Director Daniel Espinosa, who previously made Safe House and Child 44, keeps things brisk and taught, which may please most viewers.

But the script has no originality, and that brings Life crashing back down to Earth with a thud.

The Alien series itself, which this copies so closely, will be having a new entry called Alien: Covenant coming out later this year.

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