LIFE (2017): A Competent but Not Too Lively Sci-Fi / Horror Thriller
Billed as a sci-fi/horror film, Life (2017, dir. Daniel Espinosa) is more accurately a semi-lame thriller based on the familiar sci-fi trope of contamination by an alien species. It does boast some masculine Hollywood star-power, with Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. David Jordan, the American medical officer aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in orbit around the Earth, and Ryan Reynolds as US flight engineer Rory Adams. From a technical standpoint, it’s also a well-made film. Still, it fails to generate the viewer responses provoked by prior films that its story seems to reference: the horror and terror of Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott) and the fatalistic suspense of Gravity (2013, dir. Alfonso Cuarón).
The story centers on the return to Earth of Pilgrim 7, an unmanned Mars probe. The mission of the current team aboard the ISS, led by Russian mission commander Olga Dykhovichnaya (Ekaterina Golovkina), is to acquire the probe and study the Martian soil samples that it has collected. Due to the hoped-for possibility that these samples could contain extraterrestrial life forms, the ISS also serves as a way to keep them in quarantine. After a highly-improbable capture (from the standpoint of physics) of the probe using the ISS’ mechanical arm, UK exobiologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) tests the samples for evidence of life. CDC quarantine officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), also from the UK, works to maintain a physical “firewall” around his work.
In plot developments that almost write themselves based on audience expectations, Derry does discover what appears to be a single-celled organism in a dormant state. Assumed to be benign, it’s quickly dubbed “Calvin” by elementary school students on Earth. However, like its namesake, Calvin soon reveals its severe, uncompromising nature and its predestined goal of malevolence towards other life forms. Soon the film is in Alien mode, which continues into the third act, where a Gravity-like storyline is grafted onto the plot. Instead of just Ripley, two crew members (one of whom is Gyllenhaal’s character – surprise!) attempt to implement a final, desperate plan to keep Calvin from gaining access to Earth.
Along with closed framing, the setting of Life aboard the cramped ISS sets up a claustrophobic atmosphere that — as in the two films just mentioned — could have helped to generate more horror, terror, and suspense than this viewer actually experienced. Perhaps the film’s rather flat characterization and the lack of significant development of the relationships within its multicultural group of crew members are to blame. Several characters have complicating factors in their lives — for example, Dr. Derry’s physical disability, Japanese systems engineer Sho Murakami’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) inability to be with his wife Kazumi (Naoko Mori) as she delivers her baby back on earth, and Dr. Jordan’s misanthropic cynicism. However, the relationships among the characters remain stale as they interact via a stereotypically quasi-military shipboard protocol. Throwing in metaphors drawn from the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon in the third act doesn’t go far enough to develop a meaningful relationship between the two final characters. Finally, Calvin itself is not very scary. Admittedly, it’s hard to compete with Alien‘s xenomorph.
Having said all of this, the film does have one bright spot: its finale avoids the cliched Hollywood happy ending that viewers might expect. The suspenseful possibility of a sequel that it sets up is potentially more horrific and terrifying than the film itself. We will have wait to see if a follow-on film is in the works. If so, I hope that it will add more emotional impact to its story while retaining the technical filmmaking expertise of Life. I gave this release 2.5 / 5 stars on Letterboxd.