While Lacking Originality, ‘Life’ Still Succeeds Through Fright

life movie

Life is not a movie that will make you think—and maybe that’s okay. This new space thriller from director Daniel Espinosa is remarkably derivative, as nearly every other review for this film seems to mention, in comparison, either to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) or Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013). Admittedly, these comparisons are totally and completely apt, as Life borrows from Alien’s “monster in space” premise. Gravity, too, is a clear influence, as crewmembers must attempt a risky return to Earth from the International Space Station. Even while lacking the sheer primal terror of Alien and the poetic imagery of Gravity, Life works, primarily, because it knows what it is—a fun, well-crafted movie that exists to entertain.

Life begins as a team of six astronauts aboard the International Space Station prepares to intercept a space probe containing samples from Mars’ surface. Soon, crewmembers David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), and Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) look on as Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare)—the house biologist—begins tinkering with the sample, only to find a single-celled organism. Calvin—the name given to said organism—grows rapidly until he becomes a translucent, flexible mass of tentacles. As expected, Calvin begins wreaking havoc aboard the space station, as feelings of awe quickly become feelings of terror. After a deliberate and well-crafted build up, Life turns into an exhilarating (and gory) cat-and-mouse game as Calvin begins picking off whichever astronaut he can get his tentacles on.

The direction in this film elevates it from being a simple, obvious B-movie. Life opens marvelously with a prolonged one-take—the camera floating through the corridors of the International Space Station. Like the astronauts floating across the frame in zero gravity, the camera too floats delicately, while still creating an air of suspense achieved from a single-take shot. Furthermore, the camerawork displayed throughout the film was remarkably patient and controlled. Erratic shaky-cam footage is nowhere to be found in Life, as Daniel Espinosa opted for using slow pans and longer takes to achieve suspense. This suspense was also ramped up by a surprisingly effective score by Jon Ekstrand (although the main theme sounded eerily similar to parts of Hans Zimmer’s score from Interstellar).

The terror in this film is garnered in situations that make us uncomfortable. Early in the film while being examined in the quarantined laboratory, Calvin strangles Hugh by the hand. Calvin—now the size of a large starfish—had become so overwhelmingly powerful, that Hugh could not escape his constricting vice. Screaming and calling for help, the five other astronauts stand by for fear of violating quarantine and contaminating the rest of the station. Arguments ensue, as some reasonably want to violate quarantine in order to save their friend, while others reasonably would rather not. This type of situational terror is, in many ways, the most horrifying, because there exists no simple solution to a difficult, gut-wrenching problem.

Calvin’s slippery, otherworldly beingness allows him to hide in the cracks and crevices of the space station, out of the astronauts’ sights. Fear of Calvin stems from not knowing where he is. The CGI utilized to create such a creature looks exceptionally believable in the film, even if the creature design for Calvin stands far behind that of other alien/monster movie character—in particular, the Xenomorph from Alien. Calvin, rather, does not appear as menacing as the Xenomorph. As the film progresses, Calvin grows wings and begins to fly around—like a mutant dragonfly—through the corridors of the space station as he hunts down the remaining humans. This flying conglomerate of tentacles is undisputedly less menacing than the Xenomorph—the brainchild from estranged artist H.R. Giger. Giger’s alien preyed upon basic human fear, as he designed an alien with vaguely human-like features, unlike Calvin, who seems to resemble a menacing moth. Giger’s alien haunted the subconscious of those who saw it, whereas Calvin will not keep anyone from sleep.

While Life fails to reinvent the wheel, it should not have been expected to do so. Rather, the film succeeds because it understands the confines of the genre in which it operates, as it ultimately succeeds in entertaining. Moviegoers will not walk away from this film with a new understanding life, but they will be assured that the hour and forty minutes spent at the cinema was well worth it.

Featured Image By Columbia Pictures