I think it would be fair to argue that of all the cinematic genres, sci-fi is the one that if done well, can be the most excellent, and if done poorly, can be the absolute worst. From the unbeatable classics of the genre like the Alien franchise to some criminal abominations like Battlefield Earth and The Happening, it always bewilders me how stories and themes so seemingly similar can have such varying success rates. A quick look at the Life trailer told us all that it was going to be gunning for the Alien type vibe. Big shoes to fill guys, big boy shoes to fill.
Life is a sci-fi horror that tells the very predictable story of a multinational space crew who are living at the International Space Station after finding microscopic evidence of life on Mars. As tends to happen in a narrative such as this, the specimen begins to grow at a rapid rate and the crew soon find themselves fighting for their lives. That’s it in a nutshell, but the problem is that the plot never ventures any further than that simple ‘nutshell’ status, the filmmakers seemingly happy enough to let the narrative play out in a way that we have seen literally hundreds of times in various sci-fi horrors before. A surprisingly high profile cast featuring the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson do their best at various points to find an emotional connection with the audience, but on the whole I would say that this fails. The film never truly captivates past the gimmick of a few effective jump scares, but I will give it credit for a plot twist ending that, though slightly signposted for anybody paying enough attention, still gives the picture a jolt of originality that whilst being a fun and effective moment, unfortunately feels like a case of too little too late with regards to making up for the pedestrian nature of the rest of the film.
To really make an impact in this particular genre anymore, you have to either boast stunning, groundbreaking visuals (a la Gravity) or do something much more ambitious in terms of overall story (a la Interstellar). Granted, both of these examples are not specifically alien horror related pictures, but my point from the introduction stands in that once you have seen perfection in the form of something like Aliens, a lacklustre, unoriginal game of fatal cat and mouse around a space ship simply no longer cuts it. Another particular problem for Life is the somewhat comical design of its deadly creature, starting out looking like a cute reject from a Pixar short and ending up like the more octopus-esque, meek little sister of Ripley’s iconic nemesis. No doubt there is a real issue with creating an alien that doesn’t bear too much similarity to the iconic designs in cinematic history, but if that was the best the filmmakers could do, then I am far from impressed. Ultimately Life is what you might call a straight up middling movie. A solid 5/10. It’s too well acted and technically proficient to be truly bad, but it’s also too unimaginative and wholly predictable to be anything close to great.
Like I said, the cast list for Life is surprisingly stellar. Ever since Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds seems to have firmly found his niche as the good looking guy who likes to crack wise at every opportunity, and whilst his role in the film is something akin to Janet Leigh’s in Psycho, he proves to be an enjoyable on screen presence during his limited scenes. Rebecca Ferguson as Dr. Miranda North, a British quarantine officer, is solid if not slightly underused. The bulk of her performance constitutes reactions of horror at what others are doing rather than doing anything herself, but she does slightly come in to her own in the film’s final third. Jake Gyllenhaal as American medical officer Dr. David Jordan is arguably the closest thing the audience get to building an attachment to a character. Very much a man caught between two worlds both physically and emotionally, we learn that David has nearly been at the Space Station for longer than any human in history, and Gyllenhaal does a good job of portraying a character who doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere anymore. Further supporting roles are given by the likes of Hiroyuki Sanada, Arion Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya, and whilst it was nice to see such a multiracial and multinational cast, no performer really had enough time in the tight narrative to really make much of an impact past a cliched death scene or familiar sounding sci-fi monologue.
Overall, Life is a completely run of the mill science-fiction horror movie that, whilst containing a final twist that proves brief cheap thrills and a raised eyebrow, doesn’t do nearly enough to merit the status of other high profile releases in the genre that have become instant classics. It certainly feels like the filmmakers have wasted the talents of the great cast that was assembled. To bring the review full circle, it doesn’t plunge to the dark depths of Battlefield Earth, but it certainly will never be regarded in the same breath as Alien. Don’t strain yourself to see it, but perhaps one for the Netflix queue if you like to keep in touch with science-fiction cinema.