New Space Horror Tale is Fun but Formulaic
DIRECTED BY DANIEL ESPINOSA/2017
We have been here before. This small, isolated crew of scientists, techies, and explorers; far from help, sealed away in a high-cost habitrail, encountering a new life form – first with wonder, then with a growing sense of alarm. It all feels familiar. It’s sci-fi as horror, most proficiently offered up in classics like The Thing (both versions) and the Alien franchise. There’s another of those coming, by the way: Alien Covenant is due for release in May. It’s probably best that Life isn’t going head to head with Ridley Scott. I’m not sure Life is up for that level of competition. It is a lesser film than Alien ( plus sequels) and The Thing (both versions!). Life is formulaic, the twists are not nearly twisty enough to come as a surprise, and some of the dialogue is painfully clunky. Even so, it’s fun. It feels like the first summer movie, even if summer is still far off. Life is a solid popcorn movie, and sometimes that’s plenty.
Life opens with a tense rescue operation, the crew of an international space station retrieving a Mars sample from a damaged spacecraft. Director Daniel Espinosa uses the interior of the space station and its zero gravity atmosphere to effectively disorient viewers. Up is down, down is up, and there seems to be an endless series of corridors in which one can get lost – or in which a creature can hide. If you’ve seen the trailers for Life you’ve got a good idea of what the creature is. Or should we say who? It has a name, after all: Calvin, bestowed upon it by schoolchildren back home in one of the movie’s most gratingly hokey scenes.
Calvin is at first simply a dormant one-celled creature, but the tender ministrations of the crew’s biologist, Hugh (Ariyon Bakere) soon wake Calvin. He’s almost cute at first, his gelatinous little tendrils reaching up to touch the tip of Hugh’s gloved hand. But you and I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, right? Like I said, we’ve seen this before and we can guess where it’s going. I am reminded of a passage from another scary classic, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, in which two enthusiastic children bring home the creature they find “in the park/ in the dark.” “He will live at our house,” the children tell us. “He will grow and grow. Will our mother like this? We don’t know.” Speaking as a mother, I disapprove of Hugh and his companions bringing Calvin in from the dark, into their space house where he will “grow and grow”. They regret it soon enough.
The crew devises a series of strategies to save their own lives and prevent Calvin from reaching earth. Watching these plans unfold and collapse like bad beach umbrellas drove home for me how much of the horror in sci-fi movies such as Life is rooted in human failure.
Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal are the big names attached to Life. Reynolds comes across as brave, scrappy, and high energy as a risk-taking astronaut. Gyllenhaal is much more subdued, even melancholy, as the ship’s doctor who feels more at home in space than on violent, war ravaged earth. The international crew is rounded out by their commander (Olga Dihvachnaya), a pilot (a very empathetic Hiroyuki Sanada) and the quarantine officer, played by Rebecca Ferguson. When it becomes clear that Calvin is going to be less manageable than they had at first hoped, the crew devises a series of strategies to save their own lives and prevent Calvin from reaching earth. Watching these plans unfold and collapse like bad beach umbrellas drove home for me how much of the horror in sci-fi movies such as Life is rooted in human failure. It is a scary proposition to watch very smart people with very fancy equipment try and fail again and again to defeat malevolent forces of nature.
More traditional horror tropes are at work in Life, as well. Jump scares, the sudden movement you catch out of the corner of your eye, a couple of gross out scenes, and one really stellar cinematic death. There’s also a good, grim score by Jon Ekstrand, and uncomfortably shifting points of view. Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) knows how to work the mood, even if the story is undermining him. At times it’s so easy to see what’s coming that it takes you out of the film – as distracting as spotting a boom mike dropping into a scene (which, thankfully, doesn’t happen in Life). It’s the narrative version of watching the sausage get made, and unfortunately we see a lot of sausage-making in this plot.
As for Calvin himself (herself? Is it fair to assume gender?), he’s passable as monsters go. I found him genuinely creepy as a sort of translucent starfish with a death grip, less scary as he grew and took on more conventional sci-fi monster features. He may be smart and ruthless, but he’s no Xenomorph (the nightmare inducing beasts from Alien against which all other space monsters are measured). Calvin is not the real star of the film, though. That distinction goes to Gyllenhaal’s David, whose large, haunted eyes seem to anticipate early on just how bad things are going to get. He’s a likable, if slightly spooky protagonist – a Major Tom who would be content to float in space until he withers away. Unfortunately, Calvin ruins David’s cozy sanctuary.
I want to talk about the ending of Life, but will refrain. I will only say that it dropped the film a couple of notches in my estimation. Still, if you want to grab a bag of buttered popcorn and get in the summer blockbuster frame of mind, Life is a good start.