Life – Film Review by David Turpin
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Writers: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds
A reasonably fleet, surprise-free B-movie, Daniel Espinoza’s Life takes the old hostile-lifeform-on-a-spaceship routine out for one more orbit. Set aboard the International Space Station, the film finds a team of scientists and technicians – including the starry trifecta of Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds – meddling with what appears to be a single-cell organism harvested from the surface of Mars. This being a film, said organism soon develops a wriggly body befitting its malevolent consciousness, and sets about eating the unlucky crew-members.
That’s about it, as far as story goes – and that’s fine, because Life does what it does reasonably well. As with any genre film, it’s not so much what happens, but how it happens. With that in mind, Espinoza, his cast and his effects team conjure a handful of suspenseful moments, and make good use of the labyrinthine structures of the station (although its actual geography remains frustratingly hazy). Engaging as the action can be on a scene-by-scene basis, the complete lack of deviation from formula – down to a “surprise” demise that will surprise nobody who has seen Psycho (1960), Scream (1996) or, indeed, Gravity (2013) – ultimately makes proceedings feel rather rote. What’s more, the mid-section suffers from a somewhat uneven rhythm, as a handful of obligatory ‘character-development’ scenes bookend an action sequence in which several slightly unclear crises seem to be unfolding concurrently.
Things recover for a pleasingly choreographed final stretch, right up to a ‘twist’ ending that will doubtless shock the living daylights out of the profoundly gullible. Transparent though it is, it puts a capper on an intriguing ripple of misanthropy that at least puts a few centimetres of distance between Life and its all-too-obvious inspirations. The film’s funniest moment comes early, as the scientists submit to video-linked questions from Earth children, who seem concerned only with making breathtakingly banal enquiries about their bathroom habits. Similarly, when an Earth school is selected to name the life-form, their choice shows a lack of imagination that would shame even the screenwriters of this film. One has to wonder, then, how much suspense the film is trying to generate by threatening the continuance of life on Earth – particularly when Gyllenhaal’s character refers to the planet’s population as “eight-and-a-half billion of those mother*ckers”.
While Life’s graft of Alien and Gravity is almost mechanically precise, it lacks the haunting elegance of the latter, and the weirder undertones of the former. Indeed, much of the power of Alien derives from the inexplicably schism between the workaday lives of Ripley, et al, and the florid psychosexual invention of H. R. Giger’s creature designs. The creature in Life, is a fairly standard tentacle thingumabob that is actually more compelling in its early, miniature form. Feasting on the viscera of the crew swells its dimensions to those of an outsized, ill-tempered starfish – and while it’s well animated, it never grips the imagination the way Giger’s gyno-phallic monstrosities do.
Ultimately, what makes Spinoza’a competent but unadventurous yarn interesting is how inadvertently revealing it is on the predicament of the modern movie star. If one is looking for an object lesson in the devaluing of star power in favour of ‘franchise recognisability’, one could scarcely do better than this straightforward B-movie, which top-lines not one but two A-list leading men, and a fast-rising leading lady to boot. The days of major stars automatically existing outside the ecosystem of this sort of programmer now seem as numbered as those of Life’s hapless earthlings.