Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare. Directed by Daniel Espinosa.
There’s a word that Daniel Espinosa, director of Life, kept using in interviews to describe the setting of his science fiction horror film: “Real”. In fact, along with his screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wenrick – the duo who wrote Zombieland, Deadpool and G.I. Joe: Retaliation – there’s a sense that they think this is science fiction.
Set on the International Space Station, a team of six fairly one-dimensional science boffins discover the answer to David Bowie’s chart-topping question, there is indeed life on Mars. What starts out as a tiny micro-organism grows and it does not come in peace.
Many people have been calling this film an Alien rip-off, and it’s not hard to see why; the film sees a group of people, stuck in space, with a rapidly growing organism that has no motivation. But actually, the touchstones aren’t as grand as the sci-fi classic, and what this film resembles more in it’s grubby horror movie moments is Prometheus — one scene appears to be a version of the Rafe Spall alien-worm scene — with elements of Sunshine (with whom it shares actor Hiroyuki Sanada), The Thing and Event Horizon, but at no point does it even get close to those films.
In the form of the characters, we’re introduced fairly awkwardly to the main cast, which luckily is only six people large because none of them really stand out. They’re mainly distinguishable by one being Jake Gyllenhaal, one being Ryan Reynolds, one being a white lady, an Eastern European, a black guy and an Asian man. But for a more in-depth character study, there’s Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) a former military doctor who is closing in on a record breaking number of days in space, Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) a British quarantine officer, and Ryan Reynolds as blue collar pilot Rory Adams, who is pretty much Van Wilder is Space. Around the three lead actors are Sana as Sho Murakami, the system engineer who’s wife just had a baby, Ariyon Bakre as Hugh Derry, the handicapped biologist, and Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerine Golobkina, the commander, and most intriguing character in the whole film.
Espinosa, who’s previous directorial outputs include the fairly fun Safe House and the frankly terrible Child 44 directs the film well, building tension without ever really making the International Space Station a character. What he forgets, however, is that in the Sci-Fi films he’s referencing so often the setting is a character, be it the Nostromo, the Icarus II or even the run down base Kurt Russell and his pals are in in The Thing. Luckily for him there’s not much need to build a sense of space because the screenplay clearly has zero actual interest in doing much with it’s core concepts, and instead has two inventive deaths it wants to show off to the audience.
The zero gravity environment is done fairly well, but often times makes you wish they’d just go for the artificial gravity trope in most science fiction films, as the level of weightlessness seems to differ in every scene. There’s also not much to be said of the score, which sounds like a sort of MacBook Pro program demo of what a sci-fi horror score should sound like. Mainly, really loud noises.
When it comes to the actual alien organism there’s several issues; all the way through the film, Derry, the biologist, keeps saying how the alien is simply doing what it does and has no malicious intent, but clearly even from the get go it’s one malicious little buggar who revels in causing pain. Not only that, but it’s design goes from a weird slither of soap to a sort of weird sea-parasite to what can only be described as a cross between the spitting dinosaur that kills Wayne Knight in Jurassic Park, a squid, and Victreebel (that’s a Pokemon for the uninformed). The design never really decides what it wants to be, or what the organism can do.
In fact, all in all there’s little reason for this film to exist. After all, despite its intriguing title and the vague suggestion of a deeper storyline, what follows is nothing more than a gore fest, albeit in zero gravity so the blood looks like rain drops. Coming in so soon after the release of Arrival, the thoughtful and profound alien drama that broke a billion hearts and scrambled brains, does Life no favours. Nor does it help that this film has been dumped out a month or two before the release of the grandaddy of space franchises Alien: Covenant, the trailer of which is scarier in three minutes that Life is at just shy of two hours.
There are good things here, two characters get particularly nasty deaths. One is choked and messed up from the inside out in a grim and squirmy scene while another has the coolant valve of their space suit breached, and toxic coolant water droplets fill up their helmet slowly drowning them. It’s also got to be said that the film does not cop out when it comes to it’s ending, an ending which at least sticks to it’s morals, though it does raise one very big question, but to ask it would be to spoil what little joys there are in the films to come.
As it is the film is okay, it’s nothing more than an average exercise in trotting out another bland science fiction film for a mid-budget with reasonable star power and little to get it mainstream appeal. But for proper space monster frights wait two months, Sir Ridley already teased a shower of blood and headbanging Xenomorphs. Who gives a toss about life when death is beckoning.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.