Daniel Espinosa’s Life is, in essence, a re-imagining of the initial Alien film, without half the imaginative spark or technical virtuosity that launched its original into the canon of both science fiction and horror. The world of science fiction requires, by definition, innovation, not only of filmmaking technology, but thought and ideology, and the world of horror requires a genuine uncertainty and fear to be effective, none of which remain present for very long at a time in the new science fiction, doomed to be forgotten in the near future.
Life is about (hah) a group of astronauts onboard the International Space Station who discover a life form from Mars, which they affectionately name Calvin. The life form then goes berserk and starts eating everyone on the ship as they struggle to contain it. For some reason, once it becomes evil, nobody thinks to change its name from the hilariously benign Calvin. There are characters on the ship, but none are developed in such a way to get a clear understanding of who they are, with the exception of Ryan Reynolds’ Roy Adams, who (SPOILER ALERT) is tragically not in the film as long as some of his contemporaries, or anywhere near as long as the film needed him to be.
The world of the ISS is initially set up quite interestingly, as the film opens, we are taken up and down its corridors of zero gravity, we get the sense of the space as disorienting and confusing, both of which become important as the film develops. From thereon in we accompany the crew of six as they befriend and subsequently come to live in fear of their new companion Calvin. Calvin starts formless, shapeless, and this could’ve almost been compelling, but ends up resembling half an idea that the filmmakers tried to have when brainstorming what an original space monster looks like. Ever since HR Geiger’s iconic, grotesque designs were used in Alien, all depictions of alien life have seemed little more than arbitrary, but Calvin is unique in the single minded indifference he seems to have been created with. He is described as “all muscle, all brain, all eye”, a super life form, in yet another violent spark of anti-creativity.
Reynolds brings charisma, life, and charm to the screen, as a character who demands to be believed at all costs, but his fellow cast members fail to bring the same reputability, and we find ourselves struggling to muster the effort to care when they are picked off one by one by the indiscriminate monster. Visually the film struggles for a point of view, especially in the first and second acts, however the final moments of the film, containing a wistful Jake Gyllenhaal reciting a poem his father used to read him, and glassy eyed stares at planet earth, are of some visual interest, and make for a more compelling ending.
Many scenes, particularly the ones depicting Calvin’s various rampages, fail to register as more than poorly realised torture porn, an obsession over the suffering of the characters we do not yet care about, rather than an observation of a struggle for life that makes such scenes compelling in iconic horror films such as Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Espinosa fails to realise he must make us care about what is happening, otherwise his treatment of his characters on screen can only be met with contempt and disgust.
Life is a mediocre horror and science fiction film, failing in what it sets out to accomplish as either of these genres, yet it is never an offensively bad film, and if what you want from a horror sci fi is an overpowered evil mucous jellyfish eating a bunch of hapless astronauts, it will most definitely be your thing.