Life has a certain endearing b-movie schlock value to it, a cheesy and derivative deep space creature feature that indulges all manner of body horror in its race to the climax. With all due respect to the esteemed philosopher Forrest Gump, most viewers know exactly what they are going to get.
The biggest problem with Life is that the film is very predictable. There is very little here that seasoned science-fiction horror film fans will not have seen before. Indeed, this is arguably reflected in the biggest problem with its central monster. The first life form discovered in outer space, the creature that stalks the crew in Life is initially appealingly alien; a translucent starfish evolving into a mass of tentacles with a love of bodily orifices. Unfortunately, the creature quickly becomes more conventional. The movie even names the beast “Calvin.”
And yet, there is a quirky appeal to all this. Life is a movie with an attitude mirroring that creature. It begins as something intriguing before morphing into something far too familiar. More than that, there is a ruthless efficiency to the film. Characters are rendered as little more than archetypes, information is delivered primarily as plot set-up rather than character development, the first act of the film races through what should be huge dramatic beats in order to get to the squidgy monster mayhem. Life knows what it is, even when it’s not pretty.
There is something endearing about this ruthless efficiency, the commitment with which Life seizes upon its b-movie stylings as a vehicle for really creepy space scares. Life suffers a little bit from its by-the-numbers second act, but it demonstrates enough enthusiasm for its schlocky sensibilities that it’s hard to hard. Life finds a way.
Life can easily be reduced to a set of influences and references. In fact, the film’s character-establishing sequence is shot in a single long take panning through the Internal Space Station in such a way that it evokes Gravity. The allusions are not simply directorial stylings. Jake Gyllenhaal plays David Jordan, a medical doctor whose defining characteristic is the fact that he is on the cusp of beating the record for the longest amount of time spent in space, evoking George Clooney’s space veteran Matt Kowalsky.
The other story beats are very familiar as well. A probe returning from Mars provides evidence of life on the red planet. However, the single-celled organism quickly grows and develops out of control. Any story about characters trapped in a confined space menaced by an extraterrestrial will inevitably draw comparisons to Alien, but Life actively leans into those comparisons. It embraces the visual language of H.R. Giger’s iconic creation, the none-too-subtle sexual imagery as the creature “feeds” and its habit of gestating inside a warm body.
To be fair, Life never pretends to be original. It wears its references on its sleeve. “This is some Reanimator sh!t,” reflects (relatively) blue collar team member Roy Adams as curious scientist Hugh Derry thaws the creature out. It is an interesting allusion. The monster in Life at times evokes the sort of creatures conceived by H.P. Lovecraft, particularly in the opening and closing acts. Unknowable and alien, masses of tentacles with consciousness that seems unfathomable to the unwitting scientists who have awakened it.
“Obscure reference,” quips the security officer Miranda North, which is perhaps a telling line. For Life, an allusion to a popular short story by a well-known horror writer adapted into a cult-classic b-movie is “obscure.” Instead, Life tends to draw from more matinee titles. The runs beat by beat through the “base-under-siege” plot points that audiences have come to expect from monster movies and particularly the Alien franchise. This is both a blessing a curse, setting a tone for the film while also hemming it in.
The creature at the centre of Life is most fascinating in those opening twenty minutes, when it looks truly strange and alien. With veins and translucent skin, not to mention a mess of limbs, the creature looks like something that might be glimpsed at the bottom of the ocean. It is described in language that suggests something truly otherworldly and alien. It is one organism where every cell is of a purpose. It has no centralised nervous system, with any part of it capable of becoming muscle or brain or eye as the situation demands.
This lends the early horror scenes a visceral and creative edge as the crew find themselves menaced and attacked by an entity that looks almost like a sheet of paper or plastic. It does not look like a conventional movie monster, and so there is something genuinely unnerving in watching it move and stalk and prey. In these opening minutes, the creature seems truly uncanny. It is an effective and raw body horror, one that makes skin literally crawl.
Unfortunately, Life pulls back from that oddness quite quickly, never quite recapturing the awkward sensation of a creature so bizarre. As the film enters its second act, the creature has become a lot more conventional and generic. Indeed, Life even takes pains to name the creature “Calvin.” It immediately feels like everything that made the creature’s concept unique is thrown out the window. The tentacles are still there, but the creature inexplicably grows wings and a face. Why does a creature whose entire body is an eye need a face?
To be fair, there is something weirdly appealing about the efficiency of Life. In some ways, the film consciously mirrors its monster. It is a lean machine, designed explicitly for purpose. The film cannot wait to get to the scenes of the crew dying in horrific ways, and so it rushes through all the set-up that a horror film might otherwise employ. Everything in Life is designed for a purpose, to fit a later plot point or pay-off. There is no spare detail, nothing that exists solely to establish character or mood.
There is something very disconcerting about the speed with which the first act moves, with the plot skipping over any number of massive developments in order to fast forward to the carnage. The discovery of the single-cell organism should be a bigger deal, even just in existential terms. However, the movie just rolls with any number of crazy ideas in its first fifteen minutes; that there’s life out there, that this life can be “revived” from a single cell, that this life can grow exponentially. The characters take all of these beats in their stride.
Indeed, the movie rushes to get started so quickly that the audience is constantly on the back foot. The film opens with an attempt to recover a space probe that is treated as something dangerous and exciting, but which then happens really quickly and mostly off-screen. It is unclear whether the scientists working on the station knew that the probe would contain that single cell of alien life, or if they just found it. If they just happened to find it amid the other samples, they commit to reviving it. Everything in Life is a function of plot.
When it turns out that one of the characters has a disability, that disability will inevitably be shoehorned into the plot as both a reductive explanation of their motivations and as a pretty cool dramatic pay-off. When the camera keeps cutting back to that adorable little space mouse in the case next to the alien life form… well, the movie certainly delivers on all of its grim promise. Even the workings of the sleeping pods come back into play as action beats. Life is a movie that commits to hitting all of its marks.
Occasionally those marks are a little rushed, and far too obvious. The movie’s ending is perhaps the best example of that, the entire final act playing as something that savvy viewers will see coming a mile off. However, there is something to be said for the energy that Life invests in this b-movie sensibility. Life takes sadistic glee in bending human bodies into pretzels, in wriggling tentacles where tentacles shouldn’t wriggle, in conceiving of horrific and grotesque fates for its cast.
The production helps to compensate for some of the flaws. Composer Jon Ekstrand does a lot of the heavy lifting in the early scenes, when Life is focused on having its protagonists make terrible decisions. Life has little time for wonder and awe, so Ekstrand’s score tries to evoke those feelings. Ekstrand wears his influences on his sleeve. If director Daniel Espinosa borrows from Alien and Gravity, then Ekstrand quotes from Hans Zimmer. There shades of Zimmer’s scores to Man of Steel and Interstellar in those early doom-setting-up scenes.
Life knows what it is, and is free of an existential burden. It is an efficient beast, albeit one that could stand to be a little more alien in places.