Hollywood is on an endless quest to warn us about the dangers of aliens and space, and we are powerless to stop it.
Did you watch “Gravity” and wish there were aliens in addition to the thrills of perilously flying around in deep space? Did you watch “The Thing” and wish there was a claustrophobic spaceship to house the creature subjugating its victims one by one? Well, have I got the movie for you.
It’s “Alien” and it came out 38 years ago. If you’ve already seen that and want the same story with more straightforward horror and updated special effects, “Life” will be out by the time you’re reading this review.
Perhaps such criticism right off the bat is a little unfair. Outside of independent film, most big movies nowadays are composites of tried and true formulas. Despite its adherence to convention, “Life” is more than a serviceable space thriller — it’s pretty good and palpably taut, actually. But it sets itself up to be an original experience that it is not. “Life” gives you lemons and then promises it’ll make wine. Just expect lemonade.
The narrative is a practical lead-up to the extraterrestrial terror. A six-member crew aboard the International Space Station intercepts a probe that contains a sample from Mars. They study it — it’s alive! — Things go wrong. Nothing audacious, but “Life” harnesses this simplicity as a strength. The circular structure of “let’s try this, that didn’t work, let’s try this instead” allows for a steady buildup of tension that never wavers. Extraordinary sound design and commitment to body horror add further intensity.
The screenplay comes courtesy of “Zombieland” and “Deadpool” scribes Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, and it’s full of their signature zing. Their snappy dialogue helps cultivate a sincere camaraderie among the crew. Ryan Reynolds naturally eats this friendly discourse up, while Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson anchor the stressful dangers of the second and third acts. Hiroyuki Sanada’s performance belongs in a far better film.
Soon enough, “Life” starts to lie. The film flaunts two falsities about the Martian roaming its spaceship corridors: first of which is that the alien needs to kill the crew to survive. It most certainly does not need to do this — or at least “Life” doesn’t provide a convincing explanation that it needs to. Secondly, “Life” states that the alien is emotionally indifferent and doesn’t hate the crew — and then the movie goes about repeatedly proving itself wrong. The alien clearly has an ungodly vendetta against these people. It’s even designed to look menacingly antagonistic as it evolves, which is unnecessary given its apparent biology.
These may seem like small problems, but the bigger issue lies in what “Life” could’ve been had it followed its own rules. If the alien were a truly neutral entity causing death and destruction by merely attempting to stay alive, this would be a unique movie. Instead we’re presented with exciting new ideas and then given a familiar fight against an evil creature. “Life” is still atmospheric and gripping, but the untapped potential to be more than a horror movie we’ve seen a thousand times is hard to ignore.