The sci-fi thriller Life opens on the International Space Station with a fascinating long take that establishes narrative context, provides characterization, and reveals the aesthetic of the film. It’s practically a perfect introduction and a wonderful way to set up the slasher-in-space. If only Life could live up to it.
There is an over-arching weakness to Daniel Espinosa’s Life: at no point is there any sense that the characters act proportional to the craziness that they are experiencing. It’s a real bummer, because Life has a few sequences of amazing body horror – but the characters react without any immediacy. Though there are myriad attempts to humanize the six astronauts, and the performances are quite reasonable, characterization skips off the surface and ends up feeling fabricated, manipulative, and without payoff. Life abandons its strongest qualities, and mishandles all its weaker ones. The result is a kernel of potential surrounded by uninspired and frustrating execution.
The aforementioned oner that opens Life is eye-catching, fun, and cool. It is constructed in media res, as the six astronauts prepare for a probe that is returning from Mars. It has been thrown off course slightly, so the crew has to maneuver in order to catch the probe, which contains precious samples. The entire sequence is one long shot, with a lot of free-form, 360° camera moves as we explore the confines of space station and visit the chatterings of each crew member.
From there, the crew analyze the sample, discover a single-celled life form, and begin studying it. Spoiler alert: things go poorly. Without a doubt, Life is at its best in the first act when the creature transitions from curiosity to killer. In particular, two scenes generate some exquisite body horror. It’s unsettling, gross, and creepy.
Except the characters don’t really seem to think so. Or, at the very least, they don’t act like it.
Life works so hard to humanize its characters, and it is all in vain. They all end up hollow, thin, and foolish. Characters discuss their backstories, motivations, and viewpoints, but when the chips are actually down all of this goes out the window and they are just faceless idiots led to the increasingly confusing slaughter.
The creature, named Calvin by an elementary school, has an interesting design. It’s easily the most believable character, though some of the science is questionable. The biology mumbo-jumbo works out with only minor suspension of disbelief. The “powers” of the creature stretch a bit too far in some places though, especially Calvin’s ability to withstand the extreme environment of a vacuum. All that being said, Calvin is probably the best character in the film. One last science thing, and I know most people won’t care, but there are lots of sounds in space in this movie. Explosions and pieces of things hitting other things, all making sounds. In space. Sounds in space. Moving on . . .
The science may go down some of its own roads, but the thriller aspect of the film tries to ape the basic Alien approach. But there is a startling lack of immediacy to the actions of the characters, which really wobbles the tone. It’s supposed to be terrifying. There’s a fucking scary monster murdering people indiscriminately in horrific ways, but if one were to judge by the characters’ responses, you’d think one of the lab rats got loose and was stealing freeze-dried cheese rations.
Worst of all: Life sports an unmistakable Idiot Plot. Throughout the story, astronauts act like assholes and the success of the creature is directly related to their mistakes and stupidity. This includes, but is not limited to: hyper-intelligent people forgetting their training at inopportune times, protocols being ignored and replaced by bravado, and objectives being hidden from characters, which obviously comes back to bite everyone in the ass. Idiot Plots can be okay, but not when they involve cookie-cutter characters in a race-to-the-bottom of stupidity and plot contrivance, culminating in utter predictability and a bullshit twist ending based entirely on coincidence.
Life strains to achieve an intellectual depth, but ends up quite lacking. The major theme the filmmakers try to express is that life – all life – isn’t something that answers to the desires of humans. No one directly quotes Ian Malcom’s “Life finds a way” aphorism from Jurassic Park, but multiple characters get awfully close. Calvin’s actions are shown to be based primarily on a survival instinct. It isn’t evil, it just needs to survive. Just like the characters and the overall plot, it rings a little hollow. In the end, it’s all just played for cheap, banal scares.
Life is a much worse Alien knock-off, with none of the subtext or vision. Few of the characters have any depth, even though they spent a lot of time trying to develop some. Its themes are obvious and under-served, and the plot relies on fools and happenstance. The underlying idea and a couple of strong specific details suggest that a claustrophobic spacebound body horror flick could work out. The actual execution reveals that Life falls quite short of that ideal.