Star Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
There’s a scene at the beginning of Life, right after an unnecessary opening shot of the pod hitting space debris, that I was hoping would exemplify the rest of the film. It’s a long take that features each member of the crew aboard the ISS floating around frantically as they prepare to manually catch the pod from Mars containing soil samples. As the characters interact with each other, it becomes clear that something has gone wrong with the pod which means they have to manually catch the pod or else it will shoot down to earth and potentially kill hundreds of people. As the camera floats around the different characters and their individual jobs in preparation for this maneuver, it almost takes on qualities of being its own character. It carries a sort of omniscience that makes the audience feel like they’re there experiencing the action as it is taking place. The scene itself is the kind of unique thing that I was hoping would help set it apart from other films before it, but once the team manages to catch the pod, and the scene fades to black, the film fails to recreate a scene with an equal amount of self-awareness and wonder and becomes another mediocre sci-fi-fi thriller. I like to think that apart from that scene, Life was just a PG-13 Alien ripoff with a Deadpool cameo and enough swearing to earn an R-rating.
Life features Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rebecca Ferguson, Olga Dihovichnaya, and Ariyon Bakare as six astronauts aboard the ISS. Their mission is to collect a soil sample from Mars and study it and search for life. The team manages to find the first example of life on another planet. After recreating an atmosphere, the team is able to reanimate the specimen they find. The team is overly excited about the finding, and when they share it with the world, an elementary school is given the privilege of naming the specimen, which they name Calvin. When Calvin goes into hibernation and one of the scientists on board tries to spark it out of hibernation, Calvin attacks him, and manages to escape from its containment. It’s never clear if the scientist pissed Calvin off and that is what made it attack the other astronauts, or if Calvin was evil from the beginning but lacked the strength to do anything. After Calvin escapes, the team must use every tool they have to prevent Calvin from getting back to earth.
The film tries to set itself apart from other sci-fi man vs. alien films by somewhat grounding itself in reality. All of the characters are meant to be real astronauts aboard the ISS. It uses Mars as the source of the alien. It even uses earth and the place that needs to be saved from the alien menace. All of which, the film manages to do well. As ridiculous as a story about a violent alien from Mars is, the film manages to make everything as realistic as possible. The team works together to methodically kill Calvin or stop him in his tracks. Some of the technology uses is a bit advanced for our day and age, but it’s not unreasonable to think the ISS already has similar systems in place. This is the one major way the film set itself apart from Alien, but it is also the only way.
Everything else in the film is a shameless ripoff of Alien. Yes, the creature is vastly different, however, the things that happen are pretty much the same. The first way they try to kill Calvin is with fire. Ryan Reynolds enters the lab after Calvin escapes from his containment and he tries to burn Calvin. There are other times throughout the film where other characters use torches to trying and burn Calvin. Calvin crawls around through vents and tubes and other hard to reach places in the ISS. At one point it is discovered that one of the astronauts is actually trying to help Calvin because he values what Calvin is. Life does try at the end to set it apart from Alien by having two of the astronauts survive, but even that feels overly similar.
Apart from the obvious similarities to Alien, Life suffers from some basic issues in story structure. The biggest being character development. There is not single well developed person in this entire film. Every character is a caricature of someone found in a sci-fi-fi film. There’s the scientist, the comedian, the captain, the rule-follower, the new dad, and the weird “I don’t want to go back to earth,” guy. All of which die in the order you’d imagine them to. Once the film starts to establish the death order, the film flips from being somewhat exciting to relatively boring. There’s no build up or suspense to anything that happens. Somehow in the midst of the team fighting off Calvin, they’re able to find these quiet moments to talk to each other. Where’s the impending dread when these scenes happen? Instead of building up the action and suspense as the film progresses, the team is either fighting Calvin or they aren’t. Toward the end of the film, when there are only two characters left, one of the characters finds the book “Goodnight Moon” floating around and decides to read it. I have no clue why this scene was included, because less than five minutes later the two characters, near death, have an “ah-ha” moment about what to do with Calvin. With a few lines of throwaway dialogue, the two are able to find a quiet moment for what the filmmakers think is going to provide some character development.
The opening scene of this film gave me hope for a fantastic, and new (hopefully standalone) sci-fi thriller. Instead, the film devolved into a mess of cliches found in a majority of alien films, but managed to bring nothing new to the table. I love Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, but this film was so mediocre that none of the actors were given an opportunity to bring anything exceptional to the table. Life was probably the most ‘ok’ film I’ve seen so far in 2017. It’s not a bad film, but its not great either. It’s a prime example of the mediocre nonsense that studios release throughout the year in order to turn a profit. There was a lot of potential in Life to be a good film, but was ultimately a slave to genre conventions. Maybe the film would have done better if is was a secret Venom prequel film. This film proves that just being rated-R does not make a film any better as studios start to dip their toes into the pool of R-rated features.