by Justin MadoreLife is the story of a group of scientists on the International Space Station who collect a returning space probe from Mars containing a soil sample. While studying it, they discover a preserved single cell organism and revive it. However, the organism proves more than they can handle and the crew must fight to survive against an intelligent alien hell bent on hunting them down. If that sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard this story before. Although an “original” story in the sense that it is not attached to an existing IP, Life still wears its influences on its sleeve, from the iconic Alien series to The Thing to Event Horizon. The sub-genre of science fiction horror revolving around a killer alien has been done to death at this point, and it’s extremely derivative of movies that are arguably much more compelling. That said, Life is still a competent film that makes just enough switches to the formula to keep things fresh.
The visuals of Life go a long way to engage you in the film. Director of photography Seamus McGarvey captures the steely blue glint of the ISS and the endless depths of space with impressive versatility. There’s a complete dedication to the zero gravity atmosphere that isn’t always present in other films, and this is reflected in the way he shot the film. He uses this to his advantage by filming in atypical and interesting perspectives such as upside down or sideways shots that wouldn’t be feasible in a grounded environment. This allows for smooth and uncommon camera movements that make for some very creative shots. The use of CGI is also well done, as the space station and space-scapes look pristine and beautiful, although they do fail to impress quite as much in a post-Gravity world. The clean and tranquil background helps contrast the more visceral moments of the film as well.
The cast does a solid job of presenting their characters as a cohesive team that understands each other’s roles onboard the ISS. However, the script struggles to give you a reason to care much about their survival. Each of the characters are well-defined in terms of their jobs on the ISS (Reynolds is the engineer, Ariyon Bakare is the biologist, etc.) and it’s clear why each of them are important to this mission. However, beyond their functions, there’s not much to learn about any of them.
There’s at least an attempt to characterize Gyllenhaal as a shaken former soldier who can’t bring himself to return to Earth, but it’s mishandled and there isn’t much of an effort to do anything else with this characterization. There is, however, a very clever use of Bakare’s character’s paralyzed legs that pays off big-time when the film starts to get more tense.
As previously mentioned, the plot of the film is derivative, but there are a few key elements that distinguish Life from other movies in the genre. The first is the creature. It’s gripping to watch it morph and change from a microscopic organism to a formidable and sizable presence. Its design is different from other alien films and always feels threatening. The second element is the kills. It’s a nice change of pace to not have everyone just get stabbed. While the film is certainly bloody, it doesn’t come from the typical limb-ripping, blade-slashing, bloody goodness that makes something like Halloween or Friday the 13th stand out. Most of the kills are pretty creative. It’s much closer to body horror than what you may expect. Lastly is the handling of the dialogue in reference to the monster. I was surprised at how grounded the film seemed in spite of its concept. The writers have done their homework, and the scientists talk like scientists. At the same time, though, they also act like people, and I was never lost due to jargon. The characters talk about the organism in scientific terms and it helps to explain why it behaves in certain ways.
Although it relies on better films that came before it and features a large, if not entirely obvious plot hole, Life works well enough to entertain fans of the genre. Impressive cinematography and a few minor alterations of the formula help it maintain momentum and hold the audience’s attention. And despite the A-list casting, the real star is the monster itself, which is both wondrous and terrifying.
3 out of 5 stars