Everyone wants to come up with an original idea for a movie, but good execution can usually make up for a lack of innovation. After all, many genre classics came from following popular trends or aping the revolutionary works that came before them. This is the problem facing Life, a film that does so much well that it’s flaws tend to hold it back further from greatness.
One part Gravity and one part Alien, Life is a horror film that tries to pair fantastical horrors like murderous extra terrestrials, with the real threats of living in space. The film’s environment is a living character, with corridors darkened by the blackness of space and the constant threat of losing oxygen creating a palpable tension throughout most of the film. Earlier scenes help illustrate the strenuous mental and environmental challenges that astronauts face, giving an early sense that even routine things could place the crew further at risk. The crew behind the film seems to have paid close attention to making sure the space details were as accurate as possible, and their efforts add a lot to films sense of isolation and tension.
Life is often at its best when it focuses in on the science part of science fiction, thanks in part to its efforts to ground the films creature (lovingly dubbed “Calvin”). The first act explores the finding of biological material from the dirt on mars, uncovering an organism and exploring the environmental factors that such a creature needs to live in. The staging of these scenes help the audience and cast of the film learn about Calvin at the same time, heightening the intrigue surrounding the creature, and the film benefits from taking time to explore the biology behind Calvin. Once things take a dangerous turn for the worst, the film calls back to these early moments of learning how Calvin survives to help ground it with some rules that add a semblance of realism to even something as fantastical as alien terrors.
With so much of the film hinges on its portrayal of Calvin, it’s the strong CGI that ultimately holds Life’s stronger elements together. Calvin is beautifully realized, with each different form animating differently enough to distinguish them, but share small Traits between the forms to Get a real sense of progression. The design also benefits from several sources, such as aquatic life and a few influences from other popular alien films, that help Calvin stand out from similar creatures. The space effects hold up fine as well, but Life is first and foremost a creature feature, and the effort put into the effects reflects this accurately.
Sadly, the cast stuck with Calvin aren’t able to stand up to the same level of quality. No one necessarily delivers a bad performance, but the cast never gets the chance to break out of their cliche’d roles. Ryan Reynolds once again plays a charming smartass, Jake Gyellenhall is intense throughout, while the rest of the cast serves only as fodder for Calvin. The situation they are in is interesting, as is their alien antagonist, but nothing the cast gives ever matches this. What results is there not much to attach yourself to emotionally, making the deaths feel less tragic, and it ultimately harder to be worried for anyone’s fate.
These problems with the cast are only amplified when paired with Life’s biggest issue, it’s script. For all the attention and detail the films script gives Calvin and the space details, there’s little in the way of memorable dialogue or surprising twists. Outside of one twist death early on, it’s easy to predict which characters are going to bite it, and often in what order. Further hindering the film is the lack of explanation towards Calvin in the second half, with the script never explaining the creatures actions, likely holding out for a sequel to explain major plot points. This not only is lazy writing, but it ends up hurting the film’s best element, Calvin, by switching from a grounded creature to a nondescript threat that does whatever the writers want it to.
Life could have been another Source Code or 10 Cloverfield Lane, genre films whose strong production aspect help ignore the familiarity inherent in their plots. But such things require a film fire on all cylinders, rather then rest on its few achievements. Wether it’s the barebones characters, or the script lacking in surprise or intrigue, Life sadly misses the praise it clearly thinks it deserves. But it can still be an enjoyable Creature Feature that’s not devoid of entertainment, even if it’s unlikely to grow on you over time.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 7 Asshole Calvins out of 10