A few days ago, I was pretty sure this review would go in a very different direction. When I first saw the trailers for “Life,” I fully expected I’d find myself watching an updated incarnation of Michael Crichton’s classic sci-fi thriller “The Andromeda Strain,” which focused on CDC researchers’ efforts to control a dangerous extraterrestrial pathogen.
Clearly drawing some inspiration from “Strain,” this movie’s been marketed pretty straightforwardly: researchers on the International Space Station encounter the first traces of life beyond earth, but quickly realize they’re dealing with something potentially dangerous. Obviously, someone would end up infected, and intense moral dilemmas (“treatment or containment?”) would result. That sort of storyline isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it makes for good popcorn entertainment.
But director Daniel Espinosa’s “Life” is something very different—and, unfortunately, something much less interesting. This is essentially a slasher movie in space: an insanely high-budget foray into sci-fi horror that mashes up “Alien” with “Gravity.” Despite its talented cast and eye-popping effects, there’s not much substance beneath the sizzle.
What ‘Life’ Could Have Offered
To its credit, “Life” wastes very little time in setting up its central conflict. Upon recovering a Mars soil sample that happens to contain an ancient single-celled organism, an international team of astronauts begins conducting a series of experiments. Exposing the cell to oxygen and glucose triggers a rapid growth process, and the cell quickly develops into a small creature resembling a translucent sea star.
It’s really a shame “Life” doesn’t embrace the better angels of its nature, because the concept here has lots of potential. If extraterrestrial life was discovered tomorrow, the implications would be world-shattering. Political sparring over healthcare reform would be forgotten in the rush to understand exactly what else is out there. “Life” momentarily floats this possibility—when the creature first begins to grow, one astronaut remarks about the inevitable “custody battle” to come. There’s a great political space thriller to be made about an international team of astronauts that struggles to fend off different world powers vying for control of an alien lifeform, and I hoped “Life” would go in that direction.
Alas, it was not to be. “Life” is far more interested in creative astronaut-themed carnage than profound plotting: that little “sea star” soon evolves into something much nastier, quarantine protocols are breached, and all hell breaks loose.
‘Life’ Has Great Graphics, But Little Substance
“Life” does succeed on a number of fronts. The movie’s production values are positively stellar, from the hauntingly beautiful tracking shot that opens the film to the solar-panel-smashing climax. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds anchor a solid cast (that, yes, finds itself being picked off one by one by the marauding monster). For all the film’s similarities to “Alien,” the setting is quite unique: a zero gravity environment provides plenty of opportunities for inventive mayhem. And I’d be remiss in my critical duties if I didn’t mention that “Life” has one glorious third-act moment that almost redeems the whole thing. (Almost!) But these high points just aren’t enough to make “Life” really succeed.
I can certainly appreciate a quality horror movie (“The Conjuring,” “Insidious,” and “Misery” are personal favorites), so I wasn’t automatically repelled by the film’s unexpected turn toward the macabre. But to the movie’s great detriment, very little in “Life” feels original. There’s an alien-crawling-through-the-vents scene (pilfered from “Alien”), a scene with a defibrillation that goes horribly awry (stolen from “The Thing”), the alien’s instant consumption and ingestion of a living creature to increase its biomass (swiped from “The Blob”), an attempt to throw the creature down a shaft into deep space (cribbed from “Aliens”), and much more. The full-grown creature even looks uncannily like a Mutalisk alien from the video game “StarCraft II.”
Such unoriginality might be forgivable if “Life” was actually scary. Sadly, it’s not.
The key to making a film genuinely frightening is to tap into a primal human dread. In its crudest form, this looks like movies about masked serial killers (after all, people are afraid of them). A more sophisticated expression of this principle might be H.P. Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror” (built on the fear that we’re simply pawns in the hands of malevolent forces). Viewed in this light, the premise of “Life” doesn’t measure up: there’s no sane reason for us to be afraid of marauding organisms from Mars, because our odds of encountering them are infinitesimally small. (By contrast, Ridley Scott’s classic “Alien” evoked menace due to its appropriation of artist H.R. Giger’s eerie, sexually inflected imagery.) Nor is “Life” particularly grisly—in fact, it’s quite tame for the genre (it’s rated R, but take out a smattering of profanity and the movie’s easily in PG-13 territory).
There Are Better Sci-Fi Horror Films Out There
“Life” suffers not because it relies on a bait-and-switch premise, but because its B-movie sensibilities don’t do proper justice to its talented cast and top-notch cinematography. Unlike 2012’s “Prometheus,” which explored questions of Gnosticism and human origins alongside terrifying imagery, “Life” simply has very little on its mind. Similarly, the bleakest undercurrent in “Alien” was the prospect that the murderous creature would be commodified and weaponized by a multinational corporation. Nothing so provocative is teased here, and given the clear talent behind “Life,” that failure is really quite a shame.
When all’s said and done, “Life” is perhaps best enjoyed as a late-night Netflix pick. If you like this sort of movie, I recommend the far superior 1997 film “Event Horizon,” which probes similar themes and packs a much fiercer punch. Otherwise, save your money.