As a B-minus movie with an A-plus cast, the sci-fi horror specimen Life is the latest in a looong line of films that recycle the same imperishable plot: a group of explorers in a hermetically sealed environment encounters a hostile creature, which sneaks through the facility and picks off the crew one-by-one.
This monster-in-space template has been around since at least 1958 (It! The Terror From Beyond Space) and it was, of course, perfected by Ridley Scott in 1979 with Alien. So, with a movie like Life, it’s not a matter of whether it’s derivative; it’s an issue of how derivative it will be.
If you guessed “shamelessly,” you’re a winner! Life lifts entire chunks of Alien, including plot points, creature design, and even the opening title sequence. It’s not against the law or anything, but it’s enormously distracting.
The deathtrap this time is the International Space Station (ISS), in a near-future setting where the rooms are a little bigger and the technology is a little better. The astronauts have been tasked with retrieving soil samples from an incoming Mars probe, which they hope will finally provide proof of life beyond Earth.
Sure enough, they hit the jackpot when microscopic analysis reveals a single-celled organism frozen in the dirt. After fiddling with the dials, the crew manages to find the right combination of heat, pressure, and glucose to awaken the li’l feller. The alien, nicknamed Calvin, proceeds to get bigger, stronger, and smarter.
Portraying a former military medic still haunted by battlefield trauma, Jake Gyllenhaal has the alpha role in the ensemble cast. Also on board the expanded ISS: Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya as mission commander; British actor Ariyon Bakare as an exobiologist; Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada as the systems guy; and Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson as the CDC rep. It’s an international space station, after all. Oh, Ryan Reynolds is there, too. Briefly.
Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) provides a promising first act, with carefully crafted dialogue that reveals backstory and primes the audience to think about certain relevant concepts: quarantine protocol, for instance. The early scenes with young Calvin, just a sprout-sized alien, are intriguing. One strange detail, and this will become important later: the scientists note that each cell in the alien entity serves multiple functions. It’s all muscle, all brain, and all eyeball.
These weird details are terrific, and Life appears to be trading in sci-fi commodities like compelling characters and novel ideas. But right around the halfway point, the film degenerates into a standard-issue monster movie. Characters make dubious decisions and blood is spilled. Well, spilled isn’t the right word. Let’s just say that bloodletting gets interesting in zero gravity. Espinosa races from one frantic set piece to the next, and the pacing is all wrong.
A big part of the reason Alien was so scary and effective is because Ridley Scott directed it as a haunted house movie in space. Life goes the other way, opting for the action-movie route. That can be done, too, but James Cameron already did it to near-perfection with Aliens, one of the best sequels ever. Absent any kind of real innovation in style or substance, Life becomes just another creature feature. It’s a bummer.
That said, I must concede that Life has a brilliant whopper of an ending. The final sequence is a doozy, and the musical score—a nightmare crescendo of foghorn brass—locks in perfectly with the images and implications presented onscreen. In fact, the ending is so good that, for connoisseurs of the monster movie as a genre, it’s worth sitting through the rest of the movie just to get there.