Life is a movie pieced together using plot strands and character sketches from other science fiction movies. Maybe this shouldn’t be such a surprise; after all, the title is as generic as the content. ‘Life.’ You know how many films are titled Life? An IMDb search turns up several dozen. But anyway, generic doesn’t have to mean bad. If you already know you’re a fan of the space monster/space peril/space horror thing, Life is likely to push all your buttons, and push them well.
Having scrupulously avoided trailers before the release of this film, I have no idea how much of the story they revealed. So if you’re a Life-virgin, tell me if any of this sounds familiar. A semi-diverse group of astronautical scientists wait on the International Space Station with bated breath. (Semi-diverse = a French lady, a Japanese guy, two Brits, and two Americans). A soil sample from Mars will soon arrive, allowing them to study it to see if The Red Planet houses… LIFE™️. It does! A little blobby microorganism the crew eventually call Calvin.
Director Daniel Espinosa handles these early scenes delicately, with a sense of wonder. As scientists rattle off some properties of the new being, the geek in me felt tiny little pangs of awe. Calvin becomes multi-cellular, but each cell performs the same function as every other cell; this means, basically, that all of Calvin is at once brain, muscle, and eye. It’s fascinating to watch this creature grow and—oh, wait. There he is crunching bones. Oops, now he’s escaped from his container. Oh, bother, now he’s out of the lab and has assumed the role of a predator, with the crew as prey. The hunt begins…
Okay, all of this feels familiar, but Espinosa sure goes for it. He’s stolen from other, better science fiction movies, but at least he stole the best bits, and fashioned them together into a pretty effective exercise in suspense. His confidence is pretty brash, and there were times I was laughing at his audacity. (In a good way.) At several moments he had me tense, excited—thrilled, even. All of this in spite of myself. Espinosa was manipulating the hell out of me, but I didn’t mind at all. The presence of Jake Gyllenhaal, whose puppy-dog eyes and boy-scout demeanour never fail to elicit empathy from a viewer, helps immensely.
Espinosa makes two actively-bad-but-not-fatal errors, both involving the creature, Calvin. If every cell of Calvin’s body is brain, muscle, and eye, then why does Calvin end up looking like a small snaketurtledragon? It doesn’t quite seem like the logical evolutionary anatomy given what we know. Also, the POV shots from Calvin make no sense in this context. Honestly, creature POV shots haven’t been interesting since Wolfen, and here they pull you right out of any scene they’re in. Mercifully, they are few in number.
Life doesn’t really have a point; it has no themes to convey, says nothing about human nature—and really no insights about life, come to think of it. Espinosa hasn’t gone that deep. He wants nothing more than to entertain you, which he does very well. It’s a good time at the movies.
But once Life is over, you’ll probably never think about it ever again.