OnScreen Review: 'Life'

Ken Jones

OnScreen Chief Movie Critic

We live in a culture where a lot of material is recycled, repurposed and remixed to suit the flavor of the month.  Moving pictures have been around for over a century now, and there is very little new under the sun in regards to storytelling, even as the capabilities to tell those stories continues to rapidly expand.  With the recent sci-fi release Life, we see the familiar story of space exploration gone wrong updated with the glossy veneer of modern movie technology.

On board the International Space Station, a group of astronauts and scientists make the historic discovery of life on Mars when they retrieve a returning Mars probe with soil samples that include a single-celled organism, which they manage to revive.  Affectionately named Calvin, it begins to evolve and grow at a steady rate into a multi-cell organism that responds to stimuli, and every cell is all brain, all eye, all muscle.  A lab accident causes Calvin to go dormant again, only to be stimulated again through electric charge, which it responds to aggressively, attacking and eventually getting loose in the ISS and breaking containment and quarantine in the process.  Showing itself to be highly resilient and resistant to attempts to kill it, the crew must try to survive and ultimately prevent it from reaching Earth.

Life has quite a few good things going for it.  For starters, the cast is headlined by Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds.  Also featured are Hiroyuki Sanada, Arioyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovchnaya in supporting roles.  While it is easy to suspect that the lesser known actors in this ensemble will be picked off sooner than the big name Hollywood stars, one of the big names is in fact (*minor spoiler*) one of the first to go.  It’s a swerve that happens from time to time and always reminds me of Steven Segal in Executive Decision though there are plenty of better examples.  What makes that effective is that it signals to the audience that anyone in this picture is fair game and can die at anytime, regardless of whether their name appears above the title on the poster or not. 

While it has a decent cast, the two best aspects of this film are the atmosphere it establishes and the creature.  One of the aspects of the story that is stressed throughout the plot is the importance of quarantine protocols, an important safety feature when it comes to dealing with unknown biology from another planet.  As Calvin grows, and escapes from the lab they are keeping it in, the firewalls of the quarantine and the importance of containment is pretty well conveyed.  While some of the tension is standard sci-fi thriller fare, they do an effective job of making Calvin’s presence on board the ISS like an intrusion.  It reminded me of the feeling I get when I see a spider crawling on my wall that disappears before I can kill it. As someone who hates spiders, I’m now looking around my apartment suspiciously wondering to myself, “Where is it?  Where did it go?” 

Calvin, the alien creature, is the real highlight of the film.  It’s an impressive creation both in terms of CGI and being a sci-fi “monster.”  Calvin starts out a something small and harmless and eventually evolves into something tentacle and incredibly strong.  A scene in the lab when right after things have officially turned to bad and Calvin demonstrates the ability to use something to escape is a notable moment of dread when the crew realizes that this thing they have discovered is more advanced than they realized.  Calvin’s appearance early on is serene and looks like a translucent cross between a flower and a starfish.  As it grows, it becomes something about the size of a facehugger in Alien though far more agile and nimble.  What makes Calvin unique, though, is the lack of malice or evil in its actions, it’s just looking to consume and do what is in its nature.  Calvin is also a silent creature, and shows no apparent emotion either, making it even more uniquely alien.  Despite a lack of emotion, sound, and other distinguishing features, Calvin still felt like a fully developed entity, which makes it an impressive achievement.

The film shares a lot of similarities to Alien.  This is perhaps unavoidable when you are making a film about an alien life form on board a ship that represents a massive danger and systematically picks off members of the crew.  But it also shares more than a little DNA visually with more recent films like Sunshine (which Sanada is also in) and Gravity.  The views of Earth from the ISS and of the ISS itself reminded me of Gravity almost immediately.  These influences are obvious and director Daniel Espinosa seems to have no qualms wearing them on his sleeve.  They don’t completely detract from the quality of the film but they do lower it a bit.  There are also a few scenes that are clunky (in particular, one involving the children’s bedtime story “Goodnight Moon” that is downright silly) and I was not particularly satisfied with the ending as I could feel the film trying to manipulate me in the moment.

As Roger Ebert said, it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.  Even if a film is lacking in the department of original content, it can still be entertaining and good if it tells its story in a compelling way.  Life does this more than it fails to do this.  Despite wearing its influences on its sleeve and a devolving 3rd act, the quality of the sci-fi monster and most of the peripheral stuff involving the confined space nature of the ISS makes Life a film that can be enjoyable.  It’s not going to be mistaken for the very best films set in space like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Gravity or a handful of others, but it is also very far from being lumped into the forgettable bunch on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars