In a few weeks, Ridley Scott will return to his slimy, spacefaring baby for Alien: Covenant; the second prequel in a trilogy that began with Prometheus, and could end in God-knows-what way. In the meantime, we have Life, a serviceable clone of Scott’s 1979 classic that packs a little more believability into a much lesser movie.
Set aboard the International Space Station and stocked with an expendable six-man crew, Life mines its drama from a soil sample of the Red Planet that contains a single-celled parasitic predator. According to the movie, the mission’s benefactors are America, Russia and China, which are not entirely coincidentally the market territories Life is targeting. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Ariyon Bakare, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Olga Dihovichnaya as a range of science-types that are basically personality traits hung from a field of study. Reynolds is the snarky one, which is hardly surprising given that the screenplay is attributed to Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who also penned his self-aware wish-fulfilment fantasy, Deadpool.
So, the script has some jokes, or at least it does until Reynolds’ character hiccups his entrails and they float eerily through the ship’s weightless interior. I know that’s technically a spoiler, but let’s be adults here. What else do you expect to happen in a movie about a homicidal space monster trapped aboard a manned ship? It’s just a matter of time. One of the problems with Life is time, actually – or, more accurately, how little of it is spent developing these characters beyond their one approved quirk. (Gyllenhaal, surprising absolutely nobody, plays the guy who’s a little bit weird.) Alien at least had the good sense to allow the audience almost an hour with John Hurt’s character before ruining his beans on toast; Life can barely wait for the title card to show up before picking its cast apart.
With some movies, you expect all the characters to die, and to die gruesomely. Life is one of them. But to wring drama out of that, the audience needs to understand and care about who’s who. Life’s opening is so torrid that you half suspect its rushing towards a new take on the old formula; that it’s eagerness is calculated. No such luck. Every story beat and almost every set-piece is noticeably commonplace. That isn’t to say that it’s bad, or even that it isn’t watchable, just that it’s familiar. You have to wonder how much can really be done with this premise; how many ways you can find to eject a killer-alien from an airlock, or to off a hapless crew. Face-hugging, stomach-slicing, head-chopping – it’s all been done. Space might be the final frontier, but you’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve colonised all the filmable bits already.
At least Life feels a little closer to home than a lot of science-fiction. The ISS as a setting keeps it within a fairly realistic orbit, and there’s nothing glamourous about the monster being scooped out of a soil sample. The film’s opening, as directed by Daniel Espinosa, sees the ISS “catching” an unmanned probe in a wobbly spacewalk that feels distractingly reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi drama, Gravity. There’s a fun terror in the mundanity of that, and of the crew’s elation at having discovered the first incontrovertible proof of life beyond earth. Back home, the global media is doing backflips. People are assembled in the streets. One of them, a young girl, asks if the discovery can be named “Calvin”, after her school. It seems a good idea at the time. But anthropomorphizing space-germs is never a good idea. Bakare’s character, Hugh, sees the rapidly-maturing Calvin as a friend, or a child. When it reaches out and grabs his gloved hand, that’s progress, and not what it should be – the first indication that the thing’s nuts.
And Calvin absolutely is nuts. But it also seems to evolve exactly how it needs to in order for each big-idea scene to work, which makes it feel like a device rather than an organism. The crew don’t so much react to Calvin’s unique characteristics as Calvin’s characteristics keep changing to accommodate them. That convenience is what keeps Calvin – which looks fairly interesting – from occupying some coveted space in the movie-monster menagerie. It lacks the enduring quality of a Giger-esque monstrosity. You couldn’t imagine Calvin guest-starring in a crossover property, or even a sequel. It doesn’t exist independently of the movie surrounding it. By the time the Life’s over, all the audience really understand about the creature is just enough for the implications of the ballsy, downbeat ending to resonate.
That ending kept me thinking about Life for a few minutes longer than it strictly deserves. But the movie itself is forgettable. It’s a determinedly by-the-book genre exercise that’s destined to end up as a late-night cable curiosity. You’re better off waiting for Alien: Covenant. At least if that fails, it’ll keep you angry all the way up until the next one. In space, everyone can hear you whine.
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