Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
Running time: 103 minutes
With substantially more blood than heart, Daniel Espinosa’s Life promises much, but ultimately unearths something with, well, very little life at all in a highly conventional space slasher that lacks any gravitational pull of narrative depth.
When the six-member crew (seven if you include the lab rat) aboard the International Space Station – of which includes captain and quarantine enforcer Dr Miranda North (Ferguson), space-addict Dr David Jordan (Gyllenhaal), and wise-cracking Yankee Rory Adams (Reynolds) – capture a probe returning from Mars with soil samples, they are soon in the company of an eighth member when an extra-terrestrial organism is discovered. Initially harmless and exciting, it quickly becomes apparent that E.T this really isn’t when it begins a murderous rampage.
Much like a failed NASA mission to the moon, Life starts out with some precise, attentive, and intriguing groundwork, only for the engines to give out on launch day. In what begins like the opening line of a bad joke, a Japanese man, a Russian woman, an English man, an English woman, and two Americans float into a space shuttle with a common goal: capturing and examining a potential life-form from the big red planet. Initially, Espinosa crafts the beginnings of some truly enticing characterisation – one crew member is quite content with being hundreds of miles from Earth, one has just become a father, and one has never had the functionality of his legs. Despite what the trailer may have us believe, Life initially gives is something that teases a depth and richness akin to that of Gravity. Sadly, that tease lasts a little longer than six minutes, when our unearthly and (un)wanted Martian takes centre stage.
From there, any efforts to enrich our human folk further are lost in favour of exploring (and explaining) absolutely everything there is to know about our first sign of life beyond Earth. It’s a muscle, a brain, and an eye all in one; it’s a cross between a plant and a squid, but moves like a spider; and, to paraphrase someone who’s come to blows with Aliens previously, it’s one ugly mo’fo. Nevertheless, the creature – nicknamed Calvin by the children on earth – is an interesting specimen, both biologically for the astronauts and cinematically for the viewers. Relentless and seemingly indestructible, equipped with all the stalking and killing capabilities of the antagonist of Life’s 1979 surrogate older (and substantially more profound) brother. But just as Ridley Scott did and perhaps the forthcoming Alien: Covenant will do, Espinosa tries – save for the inevitable introductory science jargon that precedes it – to keep his monster simple: it wants to kill you and will do all is necessary to do so – a slimier, more cephalopod Michael Myers, if you will. And it’s through this basic premise that the film builds on a fear that something out there is stronger, smarter and deadlier than man.
In this regard, the film stands up well, and delivers some particularly inventive character deaths, fully utilising the film’s setting. Sadly though, despite the absence of gravity, everything else about the film seems to plummet as the body count rises. For long periods the narrative appears to lack direction and mid-film events fail to hit the intended notes. Those intriguing character avenues the film initially looks to take us are almost completely disregarded to make way for a haunted-house-film-in-space narrative of the most generic kind.
The usual character archetypes are all aboard, too. Ferguson is little more than the righteous heroine, Reynolds provides the gimmicky comic relief, Sanada brings the emotional weight, and Bakare is the increasingly conflicted scientist. Gyllenhaal – the film’s more obvious cinema seat filler – brings his usual unnerving, uncomfortable likeability in a role where romantic interactions are played down in favour of someone who, had it not been for the arrival of Calvin, would undoubtedly be Life’s most extra-terrestrial being.
Very much like life itself some would say, Life has some fleeting ups, but mainly forgettable downs. It’s disappointingly unremarkable and conventional, all the while frustratingly orbiting something greater and more profound. First contact? Most certainly not.