Review – Life

We have seen a renaissance of quality sci-fi space films within the past few years.  For me, it started with Gravity in 2013.  The brilliance of the picture earned it seven Oscars.  I don’t think there’s any question that it set the bar extremely high for space thrillers that would follow it.  Most recently, we’ve had Arrival, which also earned its share of Oscar nominations.  Never before had a film about an alien invasion been so cerebral and had such a strong, personal message.  Both movies are truly mind-blowing, and I always jump at the chance to gloat about them whenever I can because they are both significant achievements in film.

Now, that brings us to the present.  The latest film cut from this new-age science fiction cloth is Life.  Unfortunately, compared to the others mentioned, I feel as though it was cut from the smaller part of the “fabric.”

By no means was Life a bad movie, but it just didn’t meet my expectations.  To its defense, however, my expectations were extremely high.  The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds, and it tells the story of a team of worldly scientists on an International Space Station who obtain an unknown life from Mars.  The organism appears to be dull and lifeless at first, but in typical human fashion the scientists keep testing and pushing the creature until it eventually snaps and has had enough.  At that point, the entire crew finds out that they have woken a sleeping giant and are now trapped on a vessel fighting an unknown enemy.  What once was a small, microscopic organism has now become a strong, brilliant, elusive and deadly pain in the ass.

Life reminded me at times of a modern day Alien.  The difference is, Alien (much like the aforementioned films above) was ahead of its time and showed the world what a true sci-fi thriller should look like.  I actually watched Alien a few weeks ago and, even though it was made and released in 1979, it has aged beautifully.  I didn’t feel like I was watching a cheesy 70s movie made 38 years ago.  I understand that everything has cycles, and that one day all our “greats” will be beaten and obsoleted, but I just don’t feel like Life is the chosen one meant to carry this torch.

Jake Gyllenhaal and the rest of the crew discover a disturbing new enemy in Life.

One thing the movie did well was create a disturbing new creature.  The deadly organism, which is named “Calvin” by a group of school chidren on Earth who win a contest to name the new species, is truly gross.  I definitely had a case of the “heebie-geebies” by the time I left the theater.  Every little itch I had made me paranoid and freaked me out for a second.  At the same time, the visual effects team of this film did an amazing job creating a visually beautiful creature at its infancies and turning it into a demonic, abstract monster.

If you have read my previous reviews, then you know how important I believe scores are to their respective movies.  The score of this movie is as strong as its monster antagonist.  The music, produced by Jon Ekstrand, was captivating and complemented the fearful mood the film created extremely well.

On the contrary, one thing I did not like about this film was its script.  I think that the two hardest types of movies to make are comedies and sci-fi pictures because it’s genuinely hard to legitimately make people laugh as well as scare the hell out of them.  With that being said, I understand that naturally making a quality sci-fi film is difficult and has a high risk of failure, which is why most of them do just that.  I would not go as far as to say that Life is a failure, because it isn’t.  But it felt like Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick wrote a script similar to its villain – too smart for its own good.  If you don’t have a career background in space exploration or science, then this movie may be overwhelming at times.

For me, it was borderline annoying.  It felt like having a conversation with someone who goes out of their way to show off their vocabulary skills for the sole purpose of relaying to you how smart they are.  True intelligence is like a fine cologne – it’s subtle but noticed and effective.  You shouldn’t need to take a bath in it to show you have it on.  Not only was the script overzealous at times, but it also had some plot holes and ran into some dead ends.  For instance, each “solution” to capture and kill Calvin felt similar to the previously failed one.  Maybe it was just me, but sometimes I pictured myself on the space station saying “umm…didn’t we just try that? No? Ok…”

To be fair, I will say Reese and Wernick created a quality ending for the film.  It isn’t original, but it works here.  It actually ended the way I was hoping it would, and that’s all I can say without giving away spoilers.

I don’t know who exactly to credit for it, but credit is definitely deserved for the title of the film.  Life sounds so basic, but it is the perfect title.  As simple as it sounds, it actually represents the high-level complexity of the movie.  The human race (minus me…if we ever have to travel to Mars or some other intergalactic place, just leave me here on Earth and I’ll go down with the ship) has been obsessed with finding new life forms, both on Earth and off of it.  The race to the moon in the 1960s, and the current race to Mars today, prove this.

However, did you ever stop and wonder if we really are supposed to find these new life forms?  The title of Life here is smart because it not only reflects the amount of time that the crew on the space station, and others in science everywhere, dedicate to these missions dreaming of unlocking “life” changing answers, but it also raises fear that finding other forms of life may ultimately compromise our own.

Life is an intense sci-fi thriller, and I would even go as far as saying it’s a fun one.  However, like real life, you take the good with the bad.  Yes, it is suspenseful and has the ability to have you on the edge of your seat or in a fetal position cringing at what will happen next.  But it also does have significant flaws that hold it back from achieving the greatness of its recent predecessors.