There are plenty of space horror or thriller films. The core premise of being stranded in an environment, with no help available, where every single technological or psychological failure can kill you is an inherently tense one. When the very setting alone can be effective this can mask otherwise fatal movie problems. Lack of originality and stupidity of characters being key ones.
Life stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr David Jordan, the leading medical officer on the International Space Station. Set in the near future, a space probe returns from Mars with samples that turn out to contain very simple organic life. Jordan and his team excitedly begin to study it. But this life form is ever developing. As it mutates and expands beyond the ability of the team to contain it, it turns to the most abundant organic fuel on board: them.
The intelligent alien life form attacking a crew is hardly original. Look at, well, ‘Alien’ for starters. There is some good tension upfront and that oh so wonderful audience knowledge that these gleeful characters are about to meet sticky ends. As a result, the danger steps up and there is fun to be had in the movie.
But Life has two major problems. First, the characters are totally unmemorable. Survival is the only personality trait they all display. When you have such a charismatic actor as Ryan Reynolds in your movie and you fail to use him, something is wrong (even if the decision to do so was to wrong-foot the audience). Wonderful character actor Hiroyuki Sanada (see his performance in 47 Ronin for a masterclass in both pride and humility) has little to do beyond delivering worried dialogue. All the limited cast give their scenes some gusto, but the script hardly gives them any depth to work with.
Secondly, oh good golly these characters are dumb. Like, horror movie ‘don’t go investigate that noise’ dumb. Touch the squishy alien thing with your bare hand? Of course! Break quarantine for the extremely deadly invader? Sure! Open doors and tiptoe past places where the lightning quick and lethal thing may be? And keep using the same weapons on it after they are proven utterly useless? Bing bing bing! You’ve got horror movie cliché bingo! That these are supposed to be highly trained and professional scientists and astronauts beggars belief throughout.
Life is just a case of a decent enough movie done better elsewhere, with not enough personality to make it stand out. It doesn’t have the dark clout of Alien. Or the majestic powerlessness of Gravity, even if it is trying to mush them together somewhat. It’s technically accomplished, sure. The weightless scenes are effective at upping the stakes as our cast dwindle away. But Life, as a whole, is devoid of any mutations of its own to crawl out of the shadow of its forebears. Because of that, it is Good for a forgettable B-movie only.
Words by Michael Record