Spoiler warning! Although I don’t give too much away, I do discuss a few concepts that reveal quite a bit about the film, so you have been warned. Life was a hard film for me to review without getting into too much detail. It has a lot of strong aspects that deserve credit, yet even so, I found that it fell flat overall. This was disappointing because I enjoy survival science fiction set in outer space. I love the thrill of brilliant human beings with limited resources taking valiant and desperate measures to get back to Earth. The magic of this genre, is that the filmmakers are required to utilize the law of physics and science to create conceivable, yet fantastic stories. The plot is limited by currently plausible technology and our present understanding of the nature of space travel. Since characters can’t leave a ship without a space suit, and resources are predetermined and scarce, it further restrains the story. This restriction allows for a type of creativity that is unique to contemporary space stories. It’s like a Haiku, if you will, where a very strict set of boundaries and rules allow for endless possibilities, despite said restrictions.
The biggest problem with Life is the story, which carries two fatal flaws. One, is that it gratuitously breaks a lot of common sense rules to move the plot forward while brandishing an air of intelligent science. And, yes, of course, in every sci-fi film, one must make a few allowances and take certain plot devices with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, Life bends the rules a little too much for the sake of keeping the story moving. If you have any basic knowledge of scientific research, you’ll find yourself rolling your eyes pretty quickly. It briefly recovers with a fantastically tense and disturbing sequence before growing inconsistent in tone and style for the remainder of the film. This is my second problem with the plot. In the first half hour, it plays out like a hard-edged horror film, then it goes limp with predictable tropes that we’ve all seen before. This came as a surprise to me, because both writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick are responsible for some fantastic scripts, including Zombieland and Deadpool.
The film revolves around the discovery of a new lifeform on Mars. The specimen is collected and transported via a robotic space craft. Upon its return flight, the craft is damaged by a small debris field and saved by the talents of Rory Adams, the station’s wise-cracking engineer, played by Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds does a fantastic job, as does all the cast. It’s a shame the movie didn’t have a better script and story, because they harnessed a lot of talent. Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Jake Gyllenhaal, Olga Dihovichnaya, and Rebecca Ferguson all make of the remainder of the space station cast, representing four nations and their respective specialties. Bakare plays Hugh Derry, a paraplegic, who is the assigned biologist that the whole world is trusting with the first discovery of life outside our planet. Here’s where I started to get annoyed. The movie establishes quite deliberately that life in the space station has debilitating effects on the body. They spend an entire scene where Gyllenhaal’s character receives a medical exam showing that his extended time on board has pushed his body to the edge of permanent damage. And yet, the most brilliant minds in the world allow a paraplegic man to travel to outer space and becomes the ONLY person with access to the first extraterrestrial lifeform known to exist. The movie asks you to assume that being in zero gravity reneges all the other health problems associated with the man’s paralysis. I just found this so stupid. Not only would a man in his condition be a huge liability to a space mission, this discovery would be too important to be under one man’s control. Making matters worse, his character’s research methods are laughable. Derry treats the organism more like a child with a pet gerbil, than a scientist invested in unlocking its mysteries. He even probes it with electricity when it stops moving for a while. Again, stupid. They could have made many other plausible choices to kick off the action.
The electric probe scene shifts into a tense sequence of body horror and I found myself re-engaged by the surprising transition in tone. It was icky and awesome, Reynolds leading the way with a terrifying moment that makes you go “EEEEWWWW!” This is the high point of the film, and from then on out, it’s mediocre at best. The story continues as crew members are picked off one by one by the alien who seems to have a sentient intelligence that is never defined or explored. The crew deaths are mediocre and don’t hold a candle to the intensity of the first fatality. They feel dismissive and unoriginal, lacking in gravitas or thrills, leading to a painfully predictable “twist” in the final act.
Another weak link in the story, is that the lovely Ferguson plays a worse-case-scenario expert. Her character, Maranda North, has supposedly theorized every possibility and risk associated with their mission. She does a pretty bad job, because events that occur in the first few scenes could have been quickly neutralized with appropriate emergency protocols. And yet, the script insists on her cleverness to handle every scenario possible, and gives her a lot of screen time, even though she can’t seem to execute one effective response to their crisis.
Visually, this film is stunning and I enjoyed the esthetics throughout. The opening sequences give the audience beautiful camera work and interesting perspectives. We get to see the crew at work from a zero gravity point of view which is mesmerizing. The set design is solid and the ship’s interior has a slick and pleasing look. The special effects are well done and seamless. I only wish this integrity and creativity was maintained more fully in the story.
Despite having a strong beginning and a good cast, Life ends up being just okay. It lacks the most quintessential part of a decent movie: a good storyline. Without this, a movie is just pretty lights on a screen, lacking substance or emotional clout. Sadly, this is how I feel about Life and I wish I could say otherwise.
Thanks for reading,
The Diva Del Mar