On its face, Life feels like every other sci-fi horror concept. Bits of Alien, shades of Gravity, sprinklings of Event Horizon. There’s a certain amount of familiarity involved in every step of Life. Then again, some of that is probably expected. After all, there’s only so much you can do when trapped in space and close to Earth. Plus, doesn’t Life tend to involve some amount of repetition from the way living organisms develop? We start as a primitive single celled creature, grow appendages, learn how to use tools and eventually try to dominate over those who rule the food chain. Worked for us humans, right? Now, Life posits the question of man’s own curiosity coming to figuratively – and literally – bite us in the leg for attempting to find new living creatures outside of our atmosphere.
Of course, that intrigue relies heavily on the humans we’re stuck with. The multi-cultural cast of Life seems on paper to be rather ordinary in terms of set up. We’ve got Ryan Reynolds as the cocky young space engineer from the states. Jake Gyllenhaal as the quiet loner who prefers the vast empty network of space. Rebecca Ferguson as the British crew captain trying to keep individuals and the ship in line. Hiroyuki Sanada as a Japanese ship pilot with a brand new kid along the way. Olga Dihovichnaya is a Russian crew member who… is there. And was inspired to be an astronaut by “Goodnight Moon,” I guess? All of these are pretty familiar backstories that are transcended by the actors involved, who have a solid rapport that could only come from all of these people being together in one confined space. There’s joy and tension there between all of them that helps provide suspense when things turn from bad to worse. It helps to disguise some of the boneheaded moves these characters make, but not necessarily make up for them.
Really, the only person that has an unique and dimensional character from the start is Ariyon Bakare. He’s the ship’s main scientific officer who has been confined to a wheelchair for most of his life, with the abilities of weightlessness giving him the chance to move far beyond the circumstances of his Earthbound nature and feel like he belongs. To the point where he takes his desire for human discovery too far. It’s an emotional concept that isn’t exploited as much it is genuinely developed in an authentic way. Where the tragedy comes across Bakare takes a role that could have just been very shallow and turns it into the tragically beautiful human curiosity that gives Life an emotional tether.
Despite those main presences, there’s one other major character: Calvin, the alien specimen that grows from a sweet little single cell organism to a nightmarish alien from hell. The realistic look of Calvin initially relates us to the creature on a literal cellular level. Seeing its initial larval stages of Life somewhat endears us to the creature before it grows to be a vicious killing machine. The design is sleek and elegant during each stage of its growth, giving the a sense of suspense and intimidation on a pure visual level thanks to the swift and ferocious animation. However, the least convincing element of Calvin’s transformation is the knowledge he accumulates. The creature’s ability to be one step ahead of these people alternates in terms of believability. Sometimes Calvin clearly learns from seeing and reacting. Other times, Calvin’s actions are rather contrived to suit the purposes of the plot. There’s never much cohesion to Calvin as a threat, rather an unstoppable force. Which is a shame, given how grounded its origin is.
Really, Calvin is a catalyst for all the crazy sci-fi horror that takes place. All of which is shot with rather familiar majesty and terror that comes with the territory. Director Daniel Espinosa doesn’t really leave much of a distinctive mark with his visual style here. There’s a rather mechanical efficiency to even the chaos that happens later on, showing off the lack of an unique stamp Life puts on the genre. He handles certain elements well, particularly a few terrifying death scenes that are only marred by some rather underwhelming CG blood. Yet, there are important reveals that feel rather confusingly staged, to the point of putting the motives of certain characters into question. And not in an “ambiguous intrigue” way. More of a “why would that character do that” kind of way.
That being said, this sort of ambiguity does come to a genuinely exciting head once the climax occurs. There’s a masterful use of editing and laying out of information that serves to lead audiences down multiple paths. Second guessing or confirming what happened based on previous information before really digging the knife in the appropriate place. This is as potentially spoilery as I’ll go. Let’s just say that Life takes the rocky terrain it treads on and lands in the most elegantly constructed way it could. Despite all the problems that hang over, Life doesn’t take the lesser road with the conclusion, giving it far more credit than it probably would have deserved otherwise.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Killer One Celled Organisms