Space-themed movies have been all the rage recently, with “The Martian”, “Arrival”, “Gravity”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Interstellar” and more taking over the big screen over the last few years. The latest space film to hit theaters is “Life”, a film that takes inspiration from many of its predecessors in hopes of making its own impact and leaving a lasting impression with powerful subtle messages and a pulse-pounding battle for survival with a horror twist. So, does this latest offering live up to expectations? This reviewer says not quite.
“Life” tells the story of a crew aboard the International Space Station who recover a probe that brings the first recorded sign of life back from Mars. The screw begins to examine the specimen and learn from it as it grows from its humble beginning. However the alien, named Calvin, is more than what it seems and the astronauts find themselves in a battle of wits with a predator they, or anyone on earth, have never seen before.
I’m going to buck my normal format here and start my review with what’s wrong with this film. Going into “Life” I knew that it would borrow a lot of themes from many others films of its kind, namely the “Alien” franchise, and to that effect the movie is a fitting and, at times, entertaining tribute to the classics that came before it, but that’s really all it is. “Life” lacks much originality, even if it contains substance and some quality special effects and filmmaking that compliment its heart-racing story. The sad part is “Life’s” flaws are mostly due to its inability to separate itself from those that came before it. It explores the darkness and isolation of space with a group of humans racing against time and the odds to try and outsmart an increasingly dangerous foe they know little about aboard a ship with noone coming to help. This is all way too familiar and film’s like “Gravity”, “Alien”, and “Arrival” have all tackled similar themes and clichés much better than “Life”.
Even where “Life” tries to make itself a unique and notable film with a bit of social commentary it fails to hit the mark. The movie tries to balance horror and science fiction with a nice message about survival and man versus nature, but loses its way as these messages are only subtly mentioned and eventually the movie delves into pure horror territory with it’s deeper themes taking a back seat to gratuitous kills and a generic “us versus it” concept. While the story tries to argue that the circumstances prevent either the alien or the humans from being painted as villains as each are just trying to survive, that message is completely thrown out the window as the movies approaches its climax and Calvin becomes more of a horror cliché than a symbolic representation of nature in the face of man.
Now that’s not to say there are no redeeming qualities to “Life”. The acting is absolutely spot on with an amazingly talented cast making up the diverse crew of six who occupy the International Space Station. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sandada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya all turn in absolutely amazing grade-A performances with their own back stories, personalities, and interests creating a likable and relatable crew of characters that fans will route for throughout the film, even when it seems like they are the ones who should be blamed for what is happening onboard the station. It’s the cast that truly holds this film together as each character stands out from the typical disposable crews that these horror films usually provide. Each one has their own story, from a paraplegic and a new father to a space explorer tired of the hatred among his fellow man back on earth. While everything surrounding them is one big clichés, each actor owns their role and even the death scenes are extremely well done and cringe worthy without being too over the top…well that is until the movie’s less than stellar twist ending totally throws all respect the movie has for its characters into the depths of space.
While “Life” may be an entertaining science fiction-horror popcorn thriller that harkens back to the greats of the space film genre, it’s honestly nothing more than an attempt to cash in on a tired concept as the filmmakers try, unsuccessfully, to add something unique to the formula. There’s a lot to enjoy about the film from an entertainment perspective, specifically with it’s exceptional casting, but in the end despite a few frights “Life” is terribly predictable and its alien character, while creatively designed, is nothing more than a generic killer that fails to stand out among his own contemporaries in history of out-of-this-world baddies. Probably the saddest part is that “Life” wants to be something bigger and bolder, but fails to fully live up to that dream. What could have been a powerful tale of humanity versus nature instead finds itself trapped within the confines of horror clichés unable to find a “life” of its own.
(I do not apologize for that horrible pun)