Aida Vucic | 28/03/2017
The discovery of extraterritorial life is no new concept for film glory. Yet, nevertheless, director Daniel Espinosa attempts to produce a unique Hollywood Sci-fi thriller with Life. Unfortunately, the film can’t distinguish itself from its predecessors enough, feeling more like a mashup of Alien and Gravity than its own beast, and coming off the worse for the comparison.
Life is set in space; specifically, following the crew of the orbiting International Space Station as they retrieve a soil sample from Mars. After having been successfully recovered by Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) in a near impossible manoeuvre, the sample is taken aboard the space station where the remaining crew members proceed to awake the single celled organism contained in the foreign planetary soil. The remaining crew includes Doctor David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Quarantine Commander Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Lead Scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare), Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Russian cosmonaut Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). An eclectic mix of characters, which allows for some interesting dialogue and chemistry, if also allowing for cries of hyper-politicized Hollywood risk mitigation.
Espinsosa provides very little insight to these characters’ background. Some come off better than others, with Ariyon Bakare's scientist more well-rounded than Olga Dihovichnaya's Russian cosmonaut or Reynolds' Rory Adams (effectively just Ryan Reynolds in space). With the focus largely on ‘Calvin’, the single celled organism affectionately named by the American public (whom seemly overly enthralled by this discovery), the film ties it's success to the creature itself. The crew inadvertently helps cultivate Calvin into the sci-fi horror monster of this story. As he proceeds to wreak havoc across the space station, devouring all that crosses his path, information comes to light as to the true nature of the crew’s expedition and the need to contain this monster becomes imperative. The film veers to the philosophical side as it vaguely touches on the notion of human altruism, with each crew member seemingly all too willing to sacrifice their own life to contain this monster. It's telling, therefore, that the most relatable character is new father Sho; the only person on board the ship who seems to have any desire to go home. The film may have been better served with greater exploration of the internal conflict between the greater good and personal survival mechanisms this situation presents.
Reynolds, Gyllenhaal and Ferguson’s performances are on par with their previous efforts. They're not phoning it in, but it isn't anything we haven't seen before. Certainly, Dihovichnaya does a lot with her underwritten character, but she isn't around long enough to make any real impact. Perhaps, however, this is for the best, because it leaves room for the real star of the show; Calvin itself. Constantly growing and changing, the monster is a unique and interesting design - giving it enough distance from previous sci-fi creepy crawlies to justify wanting to see it again. Part octopus, part orchard, it is described as "all brain, all muscle" by one of the crew members, and it is terrifying.
Cinematographically and story-wise, Life suffers by comparison to better films. It's Alien like plot reminds you that the characters are all less memorable; the twists less surprising. Visually, what would have been a sumptuous feast in the early 2010's, now feels like a discount Gravity. Truly, it is no masterpiece. But that doesn't make it unenjoyable.
As Calvin grows smarter, we find it and the crew in a tense chess game. Every time the crew seems to get a step ahead, Calvin finds a way to break through their defences, and vice versa. It isn't as camp as The Thing, as beautiful as Gravity or as well-rounded and terrifying as Alien, but that doesn't mean that you won't still be on the edge of your seat by the end, gripped by a twist that could set up a sequel.
Whilst the story is nothing we haven't seen before, the solid performances from the cast and excellent visuals save the film from being written off as a below-average Alien rip-off. Instead, Life is a surprisingly solid treat that, given the hype accompanying the pending release of Alien Covenant, may find itself overshadowed.