THE FILM 3.75/5
“How smart is this thing?”
Life is a terrifying sci-fi thriller about a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station whose mission of discovery turns to one of primal fear when they find a rapidly evolving life form that caused extinction on Mars, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth.
Since its release in 1977, the lineage of Ridley Scott’s Alien has always been traced back to that same decade’s rash of cheap, B-movie, Corman-esque offerings with almost the same plot: a group of people in space being offed by an alien force. (John Carpenter’s Dark Star beat them to the punch by a few years, featuring a group of people in space being offed by an alien force…played by a beach ball.) And Alien could have been much of the same, except for the fact that it was directed by an actual filmmaker, manned by a very capable cast (including the immortal Yaphet Kotto), was made with 100% sincerity, and was seriously scary. What could have been a Fred Olen Ray sexploitation flick instead became a Ridley Scott film. Soon after, a franchise was born – one that, for better or worse, continues to this day.
Watching Life, Alien is never that far off from your mind. Because, again, it’s about a group of people in space being offed by an alien force. Though director Daniel Espinosa has yet to direct a film as critically lauded as Alien (or anywhere close), its very capable cast manages to elevate the level of sincerity with which Life is being approached. But is it seriously scary? Or even as intellectually approached as Alien?
Well…not very much.
The concept is too familiar and the dialogue a little too dumbed down so audiences can follow, but Life still manages to serve as above-average popcorn entertainment. It’s well made, stylish, well acted, and not afraid to get its hands dirty. (Thanks, rare R-rating!)
Also part of its appeal is seeing an A-list cast embark on what easily could have been a project staffed with a cast of unknowns, or even worse – relegated direct to the Sci-Fi Channel. With the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds in the lead roles (the latter of whom brings his typical brand of snarky humor with him), their presence demands you take the well-worn concept just a bit more seriously. This isn’t Alien vs. Predator or some other such nonsense featuring a cast of young people you’ve never heard of (plus Lance Henriksen); this is a film headlined by people you do know, and who have contributed critically valuable work in the past. Their presence and dedication to their characters don’t make Life a new classic, but it does make it SEEM like it’s trying, and that’s at least something.
Though Life is occasionally hindered by its too-basic scientific approach (you’ll hear “nucleus” and “cytoplasm” and other terms from your seventh grade biology class), or a few too many scenes of a character inexplicably noting the obvious out loud (“It’s so much bigger!”), its effort to flesh out its various characters help to alleviate some of those shortcomings. Granted, some of the characterization may come off as manufactured drama (crew member Sho watches the birth of his child via live stream; scientist Hugh, a paraplegic, uses the weightless of space to his advantage), but it does manage to make you see them all as actual characters rather than inevitable alien fodder.
As for the visual effects, they are phenomenal – probably the best aspect to the entire film. The most chaotic moments will have you recalling Gravity (and Espinosa can’t resist opening the film with a long, unbroken shot of astronauts doing astronaut things), featuring the best moments of space destruction that Hollywood computers have to offer. The musical score by Jon Ekstrand leans a bit too heavily on Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work on Sicario, especially the piece used during the “twist” ending, but it still helps in establishing a fine mood.
Taking all that, recognizing Life for its familiar concept and broad entertainment approach, and adding in the fact that the cut-to-credits song is Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” one has to wonder just how seriously everyone involved was taking Life after all.
THE PICTURE 4.5/5
Life looks pretty good! And I don’t normally say that! Despite existing solely in a dark and depressing environment — either within the confines of the ship or out in open space — Life manages to present an attractive image nearly at all times. Not much of an emphasis on color, falling back on grays and blues, but what is there presents pretty well. The picture is very stable and offers fine clarity. Gooey blood in zero gravity never looked so…neat.
THE SOUND 5/5
The audio presentation for Life is phenomenal, offering a constant presence during the most chaotic or intimate moments. Dialogue sounds natural and clear (and a little hammy), with an ever-present reliance on space craft ambience. Musical score is appropriately moody at times, though otherwise fairly absent. The audio really begins to make full use of its range once Calvin gets lose inside the ship, creating some admittedly effective tension.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 3/5
Each featurette runs about 6-7 minutes in length (except for “Astronaut Diaries,” which runs a little less, so all told you’re getting about a half hour’s worth of insight into the making of Life. “Claustrophobic Terror: Creating a Thriller in Space” is a basic look at the overall making; “Life: In Zero G” looks at the cast working in a weightless environment; “Creating Life: The Art and Reality of Calvin” looks at the “science” behind creating the look of Calvin; and “Astronaut Diaries” are entirely useless brief video journals, one of which features more bad comedy from Ryan Reynolds.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- Deleted Scenes
- Three Featurettes:
- “Claustrophobic Terror: Creating a Thriller in Space”
- “Life: In Zero G”
- “Creating Life: The Art and Reality of Calvin”
- “Astronaut Diaries”
Life comes across as a very acceptable remake of Alien. It might even be better than the not-well-regarded Alien: Covenant, whose reviews haven’t been deserving of the franchise’s earliest films. Life may be short on intellect and lean too heavily on the overused metaphor about mankind’s place on the food chain, but for sheer entertainment value alone, you could do a lot worse. It’s almost a novelty to see an A-list cast embark on a B-movie plot, but director Espinosa wrings out some effective thrills and scares every so often, and the much ballyhooed twist ending manages to pack a visceral punch, even if it relies on nothing more than sleight of hand. Its Blu-ray release boasts tremendous picture quality and flawless audio, with a decent amount of special features to provide a little bit of insight. For fans of the film, the Blu-ray comes highly recommended.