Space. “The final frontier.” Sprawling nothingness explored to death by superheroes, adventurers and aliens alike. The whole “spaceship disaster scenario” seems familiar by now, doesn’t it? Characters are confined inside cold, industrial coffins that repeat symbolically through modern science fiction. Gravity might take us outside, but the backdrops rarely differ. Infinite black vastness dotted with twinkling stars – like an unending echo chamber. It’s with this mentality that Life plays by Ridley Scott’s alien survival textbooks, as a thousand post-Alien thrillers have similarly attempted. In space, no one can hear you scream – but can they hear you “meh?”
Director Daniel Espinosa takes us aboard the International Space Station, where astronauts await research findings from Mars. The tiny cargo shuttle almost flies away due to its wonky trajectory, but Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds) reels in the hurdling package. Researcher Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) studies their collected specimens, to find a most tremendous discovery – life outside of Earth. No one can believe it, but a growing mass of cells confirm what science has long pondered. The muscle-membrane, blobish creature – named Cavlin (because that’s less threatening!) – continues to grow in size, until a gasket break sends whatever it is into hibernation. A few little electric shocks should have it sliding around in no-time, right? Turns out amorphous extraterrestrials don’t like being zapped, and worse, Calvin is much more violent than anyone could have predicted (except, you know, the audience).
Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick script another story about man playing God, doomed by our undying curiosity. Sure, let’s go probe Mars, hunt for life, then treat it like a lab experiment. Derry’s jaw rests agape out of biological astonishment, as the little flagella-flopping guy (or girl) sits in a glass containment unit. Bet you wouldn’t like being woken from a nap by surging voltage, would ya? From here, Life transitions from a typical sci-fi investigation into an all-out fight between humans and their pissed-off intergalactic pet. Lives are lost, Calvin keeps growing and the space station suffers critical damage. It’s run-of-the-mill containment outbreak paranoia, with nothing new to add.
There’s never any standout moment where Calvin terrifies or a crew member does something unexpected. Most astronauts announce their deaths, accepting fate by volunteering for literal suicide missions. As Calvin feeds, he becomes bigger and more menacing. The once white (pure) starfish Flubber evolves into a darker (corrupted), bloodthirsty beast whose anger is pretty damn warranted (shocked, burned and tortured by man). Or, maybe Calvin was a hungry Mars monsters all along? Either way, this doesn’t prevent Reese or Wernick from playing so safe it’s almost numbing – deaths included.
Espinosa’s pacing is fast (Calvin appears rather quickly), but not so furious. As Life‘s animated squish-monster becomes a mini-Cloverfield inspiration, plotting
runs glides through the motions. It’s never as terrifying as Alien, nor as action-packed as Aliens. Launch protocol checks all the right boxes, but we’re stuck in a weird cryostasis that prevents full death-trap immersion. Inevitability plagues even the most thrilling moments, unable to breathe ferocious life into a sealed tin can. Calvin prowls and preys with the utmost aggressiveness, yet hairs never rise. Partly due to CG rendering (c’mon, Facehuggers were props!), and partly due to planetary generics.
Life comes at you in zero-G (why does that sound like a lame Shaun White quote?), which becomes Espinosa’s visual calling-card. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey floats his lens from compartment to compartment, twirling with weightless freedom. We’re drawn in by dazzling space walks, views of Earth and universal scenery, but then shoved inside an air-tight tomb where creativity escapes as quickly as life support. Calvin’s first kill is a gross-out doozy – poor lab rat gets engulfed and dematerialized – but genre repetition is the true beast Reese and Wernick fight against.
Performances are, thankfully, the film’s saving grace. Not quite outta-this-world, but the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson ensure an elevated level of character interaction. Ryan Reynolds plays American cowboy, Hiroyuki Sanada is the brand new father, Olga Dihovichnaya rocks an iron-clad confidence – all on brand, and stellar in delivery. Although Ariyon Bakare suffers a stranger fate, as his arc teases a connection to Calvin (caretaker, almost), but never fully commits until a final action that doesn’t fit survivalist logic. His handicapped condition makes for a sweet touch on boyhood dreams becoming reality, but then Bakare pulls a card that doesn’t jive with motivations. Why? Further danger, of course.
After all that, here’s the weird part where I say Life is just fine. Not Earth-smashing, not wondrous, not game-changing – just pretty gosh darn OK. If the above sounds overly negative, it’s more disappointment from something else that could have been. We drift through a sleepy attack against grander societal fears, waiting for that one next-level moment where Life skyrockets upward. Does it ever come? No. Do we still find ourselves escaping this thriller alive? Yes. Calvin is no Xenomorph, but he tries his damnedest to kill his way to interstellar infamy. Doesn’t matter if the chosen playbook is used by so many creatures before – and so many to come.
Life toes a line between underwhelming and just-good-enough, but performances help elevate an otherwise generic sci-fi clone with nothing new to add.