Director: Daniel Espinosa
Rating: R (for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror.)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Date: March 24, 2017
Skydance Media, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Columbia Pictures.
Written by: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.
In Daniel Espinosa‘s science-fiction/horror/thriller hybrid Life, one doctor, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, turns to another doctor, portrayed by Rebecca Ferguson, on board the International Space Station (ISS), just outside of Earth’s atmosphere. He opens a book and begins reading from the classic children’s story Goodnight Moon. At one point, a line in Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic bedtime story, triggers a thought, an idea, a potential way out of a harrowing and seemingly unbeatable set of circumstances.
And somehow this is accomplished without the need of an old lady whispering “hush.”
That a children’s story could play such a crucial role in Espinosa’s film is part and parcel why Life is in desperate need of oxygen. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, Zombieland) write themselves into a corner so early on, they leave themselves no choice but to pull out Goodnight Moon and replicate scenes reminiscent of Alien and other sci-fi creature features to try and make this thing work beyond a good opening half hour.
This is all unfortunate, because Life is pretty compelling at the beginning. An international crew of six doctors and scientists are returning from an expedition to Mars with their ship, the Mars Pilgrim 7, docked on the ISS, aiming for a long overdue return home to Earth. The crew gathered some soil samples, prior to returning home, and when viewing some dirt through a microscope, scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) notices a single cell appears to exhibit signs of life. Proudly, he announces to the crew that this is the first actual proof of extraterrestrial life on Mars and everyone is initially very excited.
Excitement leads to curiosity and curiosity leads to not leaving well enough alone as Derry studies and fixates on his cellular discovery. Comprising the rest of the crew is the sarcastic Rory (Ryan Reynolds, cashing checks here), new father Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada), no-nonsense Russian scientist Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya), and doctors Miranda North (Ferguson) and David Jordan (Gyllenhaal). Derry soon sees the lifeform growing, even responding to initial stimuli, and when an effort is made to make a hand-to-hand physical connection with the alien being, well, let’s just say that things take something of an unexpected turn.
With word reaching Earth that the crew has actual extraterrestrial life on board, an elementary school wins the right to name the being. And a cute little girl proudly announces that as a member of Calvin Coolidge Elementary School in Some Random Town, USA, they have chosen to name the lifeform…Calvin.
Calvin, huh? Neat.
And so…we soon learn that Calvin has a temper and inordinate, bone-crushing strength. Dr. North notes that it appears he is all muscles, brains, and eyes, based on his quick response, physical prowess, and ability to become instantaneously smarter following every encounter. Needless to say, Calvin runs roughshod on the ship and grisly outcomes soon follow. However the task before the surviving crew members is a simple one: kill Calvin before returning home and make sure that he never reaches the Earth’s atmosphere.
You’ve seen this movie before. And truth be told, Life tries to breathe new, well, life, into the “aliens attack” genre of science-fiction. With a minimal cast, growing fewer and fewer as the movie moves along, Espinosa tries to give us a stylish visual experience, having cinematographer Seamus McGarvey give us seamless camera sweeps and a floating, you-are-there look and feel of what life is like on the Pilgrim and in and around outer space. Perhaps the film’s finest moments come in a wonderful opening sequence where the camera, with no obvious edits, offers a continuous, single-take “lay of the land,” setting up parameters and structure of the ship, giving us a look at the battleground that awaits all involved.
Once a couple crew members are dispatched and Calvin is up and almost literally running, Life becomes rudimentary and downright silly. Without spoiling too much, the crew members make some of the most bone-headed decisions imaginable, even before turning to a 1947 picture book for inspiration on how to survive a smarter-than-the-crew alien and his attacks. What dazzles us initially is the mystery of what lives in, and soon out of, the petri dish. However, Espinosa gives us too much too soon, and halfway through the film, we have nowhere left to go with this. And so, characters talk science, Calvin runs around like the snake/octopus hybrid thing he becomes, and Reese and Wernick decide to tailor their script for the heartstrings, while an overbearing score drones on and on and induces the Music Score Headache.
Honestly, I am still unable to decide if the emotional grabs the movie reaches for are sincere or satirical. When Gyllenhaal’s Dr. Jordan reads from that book or shares an awkward and cringe-inducing story of remembering what it was like being in grade school when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, you chuckle, look around, and then just have to scratch your head.
Come on, is this for real? Are you seriously talking about the Challenger looking like “fireworks” while you have tears in your eyes? Hold up, like are you serious right now?
Life is not a terrible movie, per se, but it is awfully shoddy and loses its grip faster than the careless crew member who blows through the ship’s supply of extra fuel trying to incinerate Calvin during an attack.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- For awhile, Life is a stylish, well-shot and intriguing science-fiction thriller.
- Visual effects rule the day here and the film has a seamless look and feel, even down to the effects work on the alien itself as it grows, modifies, and adapts to its surroundings.
- The intensity of the first half-hour is very well orchestrated and for some viewers, that might be enough to overlook what comes later.
- Goodnight Moon. The Challenger explosion. Talking out a master plan while freezing cold and stuttering through your speech? Is this for real?
- Ryan Reynolds looks like he could care less, Gyllenhaal is oddly flat, and the cast never develops any real chemistry together. As a result, the movie just never comes together.
- If you were hoping for Life 2…