There has been a shift in how alien movies are made. This change can be related mostly to Arrival, the first movie in the genre that made me feel something other than genuine curiosity. Life is a glorious and ambitious tap at the sci-fi space horror genre.
Its adventurous plot resembles more than just one similarity to its older cousin Alien and it deliberately draws inspiration from the Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi drama Gravity, which created the modern style for portrayal of life in space. Life, however, is more ambitious than any of its predecessors, as it triggers a narration with very few backstory and it pushes the alien life as main character of the story. Or main villain. Or anti-hero. Whatever…
A spaceship orbiting the Earth in an unspecified future is used as both a mobile science lab and launchpad for missions to outer space. We are fired into a space lab inhabited by a crew of astronauts and engineers that analyses and studies bacterias and minerals with the goal of finding life far from Earth. What might have seemed just like a very happy and interesting plot, ultimately turns to the dark side as what may look like a monocellular organism is found inside an automated craft coming from Mars.
After an initial difficulty, where the crew has to literally catch the mailbag from the automated craft, travelling way too fast, the content of the scientific expedition is secured in a sealed room; security measures are taken to prevent that any possible bacteria contained in this material won’t infect anyone on Earth. The organism has a unique behaviour, initially, as it reproduces itself endlessly after being awaken through climate simulations. It has a gell-like appearance and from the beginning proves to the crew to be a very fast learner.
Dr Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is the chief scientist in charge of the study of the organism and the one who ends up dead first. As it grows in size, the organism – which ultimately proves the existence of life beyond earth – replaces the original curiosity it had towards the human genre, with hate and hunger. After the organism claimed its first victim, Life turns into a very predictable sci-fi horror movie. Almost an hours of the movie (which means more than its half) is dedicated to the same pattern of escaping the creature (which, by the way, has a name – “Calvin”, given to him by a schoolkid back on Earth during a Skype call in Time Square).
Calvin jumps, crawls and eats every human being that crosses its path and, as he gets bigger and bigger and smarter and more resourceful, the movie wants us to endlessly listen to the sound of metallic doors closing just in time for the last members of the crew to save themselves and for Calvin to land on them with a big squash.
The film has a very unusual cast with Jake Gyllenhaal acting as the lonely man who has almost lived more days in the space than on Earth, Ryan Reynolds as the highfalutin name on the list who ends up dead before the second act, and Rebecca Ferguson, Olga Dihovichnaya and Ariyon Bakare follow as disposable crew members number one, two and three. Even though Life has great ideas in store, watching the 103-minute slaughterhouse, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, eventually, the story would turn out only to be a space version of Scream, where character after character die, only to discover that the murderer has always been among them.
And it’s uncanny how the movie played a very dirty game in its marketing. From the reused footage of Spider-Man 3 in the trailers (footage that never made into the actual film and that only created false expectations) to the massive use of Reynolds' image to promote the film, when he actually stars for less than 30 minutes. Life started out as the perfect match between the claustrophobic sense that made Gravity famous in the first place and the realism touch that movies like Arrival have taught to pursue as natural development of the alien-genre. Life has amazed, shocked, fascinated me and eventually it disappointed me as its very disturbing plot helplessly turns into the sci-fi horror genre, without bringing any substantial improvement to it.
The tension that permeate the movie in its final sequence, however, is the right ending to an Odyssey that could easily be forgotten otherwise. Leaving the theatre, after the credits roll down, ironic grins on the faces of the audience might be a satisfying sum up for what Life wanted to be and instead was. Director Daniel Espinosa almost killed his own creature, but its final act is definitely worth the wait.