Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds can’t breathe life (heh) into a rote genre exercise and Alien clone that will probably still make its money back.
Let it be said that Ridley Scott left a decent-sized hole. The director and creative force behind seminal sci-fi horror film Alien (as well as nearly innumerable other classics) created a power vacuum in the realm of creepy space adventures when he announced his Alien prequel, Prometheus, and then made it with little of the taut suspense that he had come to be known for.
Now to be sure, in this writer’s opinion, Prometheus is actually a pretty damned good movie. It suffers from bearing the weight of redeeming an entire franchise, but as a talky, philosophical prequel to the scares of Alien and Aliens, Prometheus works because it establishes the complicity of humanity in the unleashing of the xenomorph.
What Prometheus is not, however, is a good science-fiction horror, or even thriller. It’s drama with some face-hugging thrown in for good measure. You can see Scott wrestling with this weight in the trailers for Alien: Covenant, which hints at essentially a retread of the first act of Prometheus that just dials the brutality and xenomorph porn up to 11 by the time it reaches the halfway point. But in the meantime, the critical sighing and audience dissatisfaction with Prometheus’s lack of scares no doubt contributed to the rushed production of Life.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), Life aspires to be so much more than a B-movie Alien — just check the cast list for affirmation of that fact. Perhaps in a prior draft (and the production also lists four writers, with more than likely a couple uncredited punches in there for good measure) the movie was a bit closer to the tautness and tension of Alien. But instead, a product of lifeless production management, sleepy performances and nonsensical (bordering on misanthropic) story beats combine to make Life one of the most limp-wristed Alien clones of the last decade.
Following a needless prelude about a probe being damaged in space, we are introduced to our crew, an international group of scientists and astronauts on the International Space Station, awaiting the arrival of the aforementioned probe returning with soil/life samples from Mars. We spend far too long languishing in a relaxed pace of one dimensional scenes meant to bear out the defining, one-note characteristics of our cast: David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been up in space for over a year and likes it; Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is essentially Van Wilder in space; Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada) is having a baby on Earth; and Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is a cripple who has placed the entirety of his life’s purpose on this mission, perhaps to everyone’s detriment.
When Hugh discovers a rapidly growing multi-cellular organism (some girl in Times Square names him Calvin, so, sure), the crew begins to celebrate their newfound status as pioneers of extraterrestrial life. Times are high… until the being starts to feel attacked.
It can’t be stressed enough how loose and plodding the first hour of Life is, another mark of excessive overwriting in the name of “fixing” your movie. Characters don’t so much come into conflict with one another as we see them state their modus operandi for being up on the Space Station and assume that it will eventually come back to bite them in the ass. True enough, Derry’s over-attachment to Calvin is eventually fatal, and Kendo can’t see past the desire to get back to his family. Yet never are character beats used to rouse anything resembling conflict with each other, or, most damning, conflict with Calvin.
[NOTE: I’m not going to shy away from spoilers here, so if you don’t want to know what happens in Life, or if you haven’t already figured it out from this review, stop here. Byeeee!]
Gyllenhaal, Reynolds and co-star Rebecca Ferguson (playing Gyllenhaal’s love interest…I think?) sleepwalk through the story beats of their performances to a degree that you’d be forgiven thinking they were holograms of previous movie characters they had played. Reynolds, the first to get axed by the vicious Calvin due to his “wild card” nature, never attempts to make his character any more than a crass man-boy with delusions of saving everyone else. But it’s not as if any of the stars or co-stars were working with great science fiction writing.
One of the core tenets of the Alien movies is to pull away the veneer of judicious humanism and desire for scientific knowledge that most space movies portray as the human prerogative. In Ridley Scott’s world, characters are intrusive explorers, craven resource mongers, ethically compromised androids — craven little bugs, floating their way world to world without thinking about the consequences of their actions. This, combined with Scott’s writers’ ability to craft interesting and sympathetic characters from this dark framework, gives the audience reason to want most of the cast to live, yet also giving narrative and thematic justification for their gruesome and unimportant ends.
Life offers no such complexity. Instead, it takes the over-earnestness of Matt Damon’s one-dimensional scientist from The Martian and clones him six times, then shoves the wretched offspring into a room with an octo-jellyfish that is on the hunt for…carbon? Life places needless carnage upon a group of NASA scientists who have done little more to deserve their fate than study a new life form. It may be more optimistic about the soul of humanity, but the (lack of) dramatic satisfaction in watching pretty nice people get murked is borderline unwatchable.
Yet, even in the characterization of such blandly “likable” characters, Life can’t manage to make the scientists in charge of managing the first living specimen from Mars remotely smart. Throughout the movie, this team of crack scientists who, presumably, were trained in the potentiality of hostile biological life, ignore easy ways to kill Calvin until just after the creature has figured out a method of escaping said weakness. For the love of God, if you vent the damn oxygen in the quarantine room, as would be standard procedure to kill an oxygen-reliant being that just killed Van Wilder, Life ends an hour short of run time. Lazy storytelling tropes pervade the circumstances: the eight doors on the thrusters (which Calvin finds remarkably quickly as he tries to get back into the station after drowning a crewmember in space) can’t close all at once, which is about as stupid a dramatic crutch as I can think of. Just so, the crew argues for what feels like days about the station’s impending crash back into Earth with Calvin on board, when the thrusters themselves could’ve been used to push the damn thing out into space (there are even escape pods for the humans).
Horror movies get a pass as terrestrial B-movie monster flicks because the jocks, cheerleaders and nerds that are victims tend to be dumb as hell. These people are astronauts, so that doesn’t follow. Yet even such high school-level stupidity might be defensible if Espinosa directed the movie with any eye toward speeding up the drama. Instead, he allows Calvin to move with fluidity, and his post-production team seems unable to lend the movie any sort of cinematic flair that might heighten the drama. It’s a fun idea to think of Gravity + Space Monster = Dope, but it doesn’t work so well unless you have Alfonso Cuarón ratcheting the tension through sound or camera choices. Every frame of Life is a blandly lit, poorly blocked mess, with Espinosa and the writers unwilling to allow Calvin to simply sneak around the ship for any length of time to heighten suspense. More damning are the multiple continuity errors that a rookie editor might’ve found. I’ll highlight two:
- Ryan Reynolds has a line of dialog off screen minutes after HE DIES.
- Jake Gyllenhaal is strapped to the gills with “oxygen lamps” in a shot late in the movie. Then we cut away to Rebecca Ferguson, and when the film cuts back Gyllenhaal hasn’t moved and the lamps are gone. Five minutes later Gyllenhaal gets an idea to strap a bunch of oxygen lamps to himself to lure Calvin to his doom.
The combination of bland camera and post-production work, a sleepy cast given nothing to build dread from, and a story that lacks the narrative substance to resonate with viewers in a complex or interesting way all leads to what might be the most indefensible element of Life: its ending. Horror movies like this, especially ones with the ticking clock of “we’re going to crash into Earth and bring the alien with us” built in from the start, live and die on their endings. If the moment feels earned, good. If an earned ending is also surprising, all the better. But screw up either element (god forbid, both), and you end up with a vaguely gross aftertaste for your movie that will linger into the second week of showings.
Life‘s aftertaste will doom it. Not only is the ending easy to see from the moment the plan is hatched (Gyllenhaal’s character will trap Calvin in an escape pod and jettison himself into space while Ferguson’s will get in the other escape pod and run to Earth), Espinosa’s direction doesn’t anything to deflect the dreaded feeling that we’re going to get a very predictable twist ending; worse yet, that the twist will feel inauthentic to the entire ethos of the movie.
One of the elements Life really tries to pump into its viewers’ brains is the humanist bonafides of the characters and, by extension, the production team. A somber reading of Goodnight Moon is used as a revelatory device for Gyllenhaal’s final plot against Calvin. Various characters, in the throes of being attacked by a growing monster from Mars, calmly spit lines of poetry. This do-goodery serves only to heighten the idea that we should feel for these characters, and that their greater understanding of the nature of man will eventually drive them to success. We feel no ill-will toward them, or humanity. No character makes a substantive choice that might be considered behavior of an anti-hero. There is no antagonist other than Calvin.
So to have the cynical ending of watching the two escape pods collide and split off, knowing in your heart that the reason we’re not being allowed into the cockpit is because Espinosa has flipped the script and Gyllenhaal and Calvin (gasp!) are headed towards Earth while Ferguson meanders helplessly into space (double gasp!), feels like a robbery of tone in service of a sub-level Shyamalan twist nobody needed to see coming. The ending, as two Asian fishermen somehow figure out how to open a NASA blast door and allow Calvin, the indestructible Mars octopus, out onto Earth, makes such a bad faith, spit in your mouth sendoff that it ruins the Event Horizon-esque goodwill Life might have earned with the easiest of movie goer.
Neither the audience nor the characters deserved the ending they got, and yet there it is, some bland, half-uttered final “fuck you” to cinematic tone and narrative voice that Life never bothered to have anyway. There was brief talk mere days before the film’s release that Life might be a Venom origin story, a means for Sony to set up the ur-90s Spider-Man villain that none of their movies have yet to properly figure out. Were this the case, I might be more inclined to put up with Life’s nonsense — Espinosa was put in the unenviable position of prequeling for a movie universe that is starting to veer away from bland introductions of superheroes and villains (although hey, you keep doing you, Marvel).
But no. Life is just Life. And that’s a tragedy.