The tagline for Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror classic Alien said it all: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Apparently, director Daniel Espinosa didn’t get the memo or Ripley’s log entries. Despite its lofty ambitions, Life falls into cheap scare tactics, predictable horror genre tropes and inevitable comparisons to similar movies. Desperate attempts toward sci-fi horror greatness are clearly seen in its poster – a human hand reaching for help within a space helmet – and its overreaching title. If a film is named Life it better be damn good, but this is more B-movie horror than A-grade science fiction. Had it embraced this obvious truth, this Alien knock-off might have had a better chance of succeeding in its mission.
The plot is all too familiar: a multinational crew aboard the International Space Station captures a space probe returning from Mars with a soil sample. British biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) studies the sample and experiments with bringing an alien cell structure to life. When he succeeds, he becomes a father figure to the translucent, seaweed-like creature later named Calvin. Hugh forgoes safety protocols by playing with Calvin within the small glass box he is enclosed in, caressing him and letting him crawl up his gloved hand. No one seems to be perturbed about the mad scientist playing with an unknown alien lifeform that also appears to be growing.
When Calvin appears lifeless one day, Hugh pulls a Doctor Frankenstein and revives him with electricity. The experiment goes awry and the adorable little lifeform morphs into a bone-crushing, blood-sucking killer in minutes. Hungry for blood and glucose, Calvin escapes into the depths of the ship, returning in the next scene to begin his inevitable hunt for the crew members. To make matters (predictably) worse, the station’s communications go out. The crew has no way of calling for help. It’s okay though as these are some of the smartest, most gifted astronauts of the world, surely they could come up with ways to defeat one alien baby. Yet tedious dialogue and bad decisions get in the way of logical thinking, and the crew is hunted down one by one as a result.
High tension established early on is undermined by predictable beats and inexcusable plot holes. It is uncanny that no one tells Hugh that it might not be a good idea to play with the alien no matter how cute it is. Despite a team of capable astronauts, he is deemed the only alien expert. When he plays with little Calvin, the creature’s ascent into killer mode is expected, but the slow attack is chilling. Hugh’s baffling cluelessness adds to the unsettling pressure as he lets Calvin creep up his arm. When he is caught in Calvin’s death grip, he’s unable to free himself from or leave the lab he’s quarantined in. Daredevil Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) overrides protocol to save Hugh, but Calvin has other plans in mind. He grows larger, smarter and deadlier with each attack. After a gruesome assault on a lab mouse, we know he’ll be capable of far worse later on.
The rest of the film is essentially a cat-and-mouse game and you can guess who the cat is here. The crew is outsmarted by Calvin because they don’t seem to be too bothered by him right away. After the first gruesome casualty, the crew focuses on repairing a dead transmitter while the killer alien runs rampant aboard their ship. The mistake proves deadly as Calvin strikes almost immediately. Many of the attacks could have been avoided had the crew at least tried to deal with the situation right away. But they choose to waste fuel, separate from each other instead and engage in dramatic dialogue instead. When Calvin emerges from a crew member’s pant leg, the audience is left to wonder: How in the hell did no one notice this large, slimy octopus-like creature come in?
With Ridley Scott’s next Alien installment releasing in May, one wonders why Espinosa, Skydance Pictures and distributor Sony Pictures chose to produce and release such a similar film today. Espinosa says he was drawn to the script’s realism rooted in the “old American tradition” of noir, which he says differentiated it from Alien’s “post-atomic age,” “dystopian neo-punk” futurism. The director of action thrillers Safe House and Child 44 says he appreciated the script’s “Hollywood-esque plot turns” and attributes his claustrophobia as a guiding element in his direction.
The sense of disorientation and claustrophobia is clearly marked in the opening where the crew’s passage through the maze-like space station in zero gravity is highlighted by the camera’s long, fluid takes and upside-down shots. The look of the film, lensed by Seamus McGarvey, is perhaps its most effective component. The loosely written script, penned by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, is not. The “Hollywood-esque plot turns” are merely excessive uses of genre tropes that fall short in the finished product. Standard science fiction and gravitational rules are inexplicably broken for no apparent reason, like when the crew members seem to be standing upright despite being in zero gravity. Life’s comparisons to Alien are so literal sometimes, it’s a challenge to watch it without thinking about Ridley Scott’s much more effective execution.
The ensemble cast includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Japanese action star Hiroyuki Sanada. Fun fact: Sanada is an honorary MBE for being the first Japanese actor to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But like the rest of the cast, his acting abilities suffer greatly in this poorly scripted picture. As Sho Murakami, his choice to separate from the others and “hide” in a clear sleeping pod is one of the film’s more baffling moments. It’s an improbable mistake especially for a guy who’s smart enough to steer a space station ship.
Save for perhaps Calvin and the mouse, most of the characters are severely underdeveloped. Gyllenhaal’s David Jordan comes off as creepy and apathetic despite a space obsession resulting from PTSD. Instead of going full weird, Gyllenhaal plays it so odd that his heroic “eureka” moment is laughable. Ferguson’s North is equally perplexing, starting off the film as the calm and collected “logical one” who files log entries on the ship, only to transform into the shrieking final girl. Perhaps it’s due to a plot twist so cruel it’s actually frustrating to watch play out. Whatever it is, after being taken on a joyride with Calvin, one would expect more of a sense of closure or satisfaction in the end. But Espinosa and his team felt the need to, essentially, fuck with us. In that moment, the film’s message is clear: It’s no science fiction masterpiece but another cheap, campy horror flick.