Life (2017)

Directed by Daniel Espinosa

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You’ve seen this movie before, even if you haven’t seen it.  Life is a hybrid between two movies, Alien (1979) and Gravity (2013).  There are similarities to other recent space station in crisis movies as well, like Alien: Covenant and The Cloverfield Paradox.

When we meet the six person crew sent to intercept a probe sent to Mars to bring back any signs of life, we know things are going to go bad very quickly.  Every harmless joke between two people, every ounce of banter and every flirtatious glance is just setting us up for a series of gruesome deaths and something about hubris.

Despite those soon to come deaths, the story begins with a sense of optimism.  There is an impressive long shot to open the film in which the camera floats around the station alongside the crew, effectively mimicking their movements.  We are with them in this moment, experiencing the same wonder that they feel as they catch the probe from Mars.

This moment captures the same atmosphere (or lack thereof) as the beginning of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity.  The takes are long, the camera movements impressively choreographed, and the cinematography is f*cking breathtaking.

It’s all so amazing and yet so mundane at the same time because we’ve seen it before.  We’re there with the astronauts, but while their minds are melting, we are simply waiting for what comes next.  It’s like listening to your grandpa tell the same story you’ve heard dozens of times before.

It’s not long before things start to go wrong.  We quickly establish each of the characters, their motivations and rushed through backstories before the horror begins.  One man, Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada) has just learned that his wife has given birth down on Earth.  David (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a pilot who is scared of returning back to Earth after over a year in space.  Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) is the stoic eventual commander of the mission, and early on we know she’s hiding something from the rest of the crew.  Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) is a paraplegic scientist whose handicap is offset by the zero gravity environment. Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dykhovichnaya) is the ISS commander from the start who soon sacrifices herself in a perplexing sequence when things continue to go wrong.  Oh yeah, and there’s Ryan Reynolds there too.

So we get just enough of a sense of who they are, like reading the first couple sentences of an obituary.  Pretty soon they are mowed through, and the only surprises are in what order the deaths occur.

Life isn’t bad, but it’s predictable and a good looking but lesser version of Alien.  In that Ridley Scott film, a true horror film, even as the alien runs rampant through the ship, the escalating challenges and creative responses keep us engaged.  The alien is ruthless, and Ripley is smart, meaning that she has to up her game to stay alive.

In Life the alien (nicknamed “Calvin”) is ruthless, but the characters are quite unintelligent, acting less like highly trained astronauts and more like you or me should we be in that situation.

Though Calvin, a fast-growing and highly intelligent life form that looks like a starfish, presents a very clear danger, it spreads throughout the station because of the astronauts’ continued screw ups.

This leads to a series of moments in which it’s hard not to question the characters’ line of thinking as well as a series of repeated emotional beats.  One character dies, and they’re stunned, sure.  Then another dies, and we get the same response, with the characters acting far too surprised considering how deep into the story we are.  They are slow to react, and because the audience is ahead of them from the start (thanks to other movies), any lapse in character judgment only sets them further behind.

So if you’re engaged with the storyline, it’s probably because of the visceral spectacle of this alien eating people from the inside out.  And those parts of the movie do provide a thrill, but the movie leans on the spectacle over the story.  If you get rid of the gruesome, you’re left with very little.

If the story is here to tell us something, it’s that we should be very careful when dealing with a new life form, like the ones we’re on the lookout for on Mars.  But we know that, right?  Other movies have told us to be scared of otherworldly life forms, and there have been plenty of horror movies set in space already.  We get it, it’s a scary place.

Then you have the more wondrous space movies, in which the alien visitors aren’t so scary.  That includes 2017’s Arrival and something like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).  Alien life form is either great or horrifying, and maybe the only example of something in the middle is the 80’s comedy Earth Girls Are Easy.

I prefer the optimistic movies, in which the aliens have something to teach us.  Like with Life, the aliens are superior to us.  They’re smarter in the ways Calvin is stronger, but they use that intelligence to educate and enlighten us while Life and Alien have aliens that simply try to destroy us.  In one view, humans are deemed worthy of getting to know the creatures that rule above us, and in the other, the creatures are soul-less carnivores to whom we are defined only by our place on the expanding food chain.

Up Next: Affliction (1997), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Passengers (2016)

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