It’s ironic that a film about an alien feels so familiar.
It’s ironic that a film about an alien feels so familiar. In Ridley Scott’s Alien, from which Life clones its formula, the creature was so unlike anything before seen on film that even the actors themselves were famously unprepared for it to burst out of John Hurt’s chest. What’s more, in its various forms Scott’s xenomorphic alien often stayed hidden, lurking within the bowels of the ship, making its appearances onscreen all the more shocking. Unfortunately, that’s where Life breaks from the formula, thrusting its rapidly-growing CGI Martian menace in front of the camera at every opportunity.
The alien lifeform starts as a single-celled organism pulled from a Mars dirt sample that the six crewmembers of the International Space Station go to great lengths to procure from its rogue, unmanned capsule. Once onboard and “secured” in the lab, the alien, dubbed “Calvin,” quickly grows from microscopic to the size of a quarter in a few days. Soon it’s the size and shape of a translucent starfish. Before long, it’s breaking hands, hugging faces and running amok throughout the entire space station, morphing into a giant, tentacled butterfly demon along the way.
For its part, the crew routinely puts emotion over protocol, breaking quarantines and allowing the creature to have its way with them despite their increasingly elaborate yet ill-conceived attempts to stop it. We don’t learn all that much about them as characters. David (Jake Gyllenhaal) apparently served in Syria as medic. Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada) has a wife and newborn baby back home in Japan. That’s about it. Otherwise they just make rash decisions, spew clunky scientific jargon and seep floating blood at zero-Gs. Following one gruesome attack, Gyllenhaal’s David even rhetorically asks of the alien, “What are you?” Not even a few wisecracks from fellow A-lister Ryan Reynolds can breathe much life into the rapport of the listless crew.
Such a dud script is a surprise coming from the Deadpool and Zombieland screenwriting duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Some humor or self-awareness would have gone a long way, but Life remains deadly serious throughout. Director Daniel Espinosa and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (coming off his work on last year’s Nocturnal Animals) craft some gorgeous Gravity-esque images of the space station orbiting above Earth and compelling shots of the crew floating around the interior scenes—vomited blood at zero-gravity notwithstanding. But that’s largely wasted on such an unimaginative creature that grows increasingly cartoonish the bigger it gets. With the alien so frequently gliding across the screen, Life is drained of tension in the very moments where a superior film like its Alien predecessor knew that what lurks unseen creates the most suspense.
Life doesn’t do much to justify its existence, especially with Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant arriving in a few months. As our understanding of the universe and our place in it increases exponentially, it’s disappointing to watch a film trudge through the same stories about malicious aliens that have persisted for decades.