Life is a new sci-fi flick from Daniel Espinosa that stars the likes of Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, Sabrina the Teenage Witch), Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Prince of Persia), and Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and…uh, she hasn’t been in enough for me to poke fun at her yet… well played, Rebecca). Espinosa is yet another relatively new player in the directing game. His last film,Child 44 (2015), featured Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman and still managed to receive a grisly 26% critic score and 42% user score on Rotten Tomatoes. His first major film was Safe House (2012), which starred Ryan Reynolds (again) and Denzel Washington. Safe House received better scores: 53% critical, and 64% user (still not great). Despite his ability to conjure roles for these big name actors, Espinosa’s current track record – albeit a short one – is one that seems to only exemplify mediocrity. Though I have not seen these films, I feel justified in stating that these two films probably exemplify a lot of conventional and mainstream direction, especially when it comes to the political-action-thriller genre.
Nevertheless, the first time I saw a teaser trailer for Life, I knew it would be a movie that I had to see. Sci-fi horror movies are what helped build my love for film, and I couldn’t help but make tons of connections to one of my favorite films of all-time, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979; and no, I won’t pretend I’m not super excited to see Alien: Covenant later this year. Prometheus was a great movie, deal with it), even if I constantly harp on the unoriginality of movies coming out of Hollywood. After seeing the teaser for the first time, I made sure to avoid all contact with the film. I did not watch anymore trailers, and I did not read any reviews or comments about the film. I didn’t even know it’s RT score when I walked into the theater. So how did it hold up?
Story: 6.8/10 [WARNING: this section may contain several minor spoilers via implication]
Well, as I originally feared, this movie is a pretty direct rip of the original Alien. This was very evident from the film’s opening shot and even from the font it uses in its title card. Yes, there are several things that have changed up: it is in a much less distant future, it is a tad more “realistic,” and the characters that the story centers on are specifically on a mission to research this newly discovered life form (as opposed to space-truckers being forced into a horrific situation by the evil corporation they work for). Other than that, the story shares a ton of things in common with Alien: the crew members are reasonably optimistic about their discovery at first, 1 person runs into trouble and everyone tries to jump to their rescue, a female officer is the only one that seems to care about protocol, and the alien seems to have a huge unfair advantage from the very beginning.
This list of differences and similarities contains a lot of good and bad… but mostly bad. While I applaud this film for tackling the story with an unapologetic, no-holds-barred attitude, it has a lot of flaws that other sci-fi films of this quality do well to avoid.
To me, the biggest flaw was the crew themselves. In short, this crew knew their mission and everything that had to be done, yet they managed to handle everything even more poorly than the crew from Alien, who, for the most part, had no idea what was going on. They were the most unprepared and undertrained astronaut crew in movie history (not counting the fake crew in Armageddon). This really comes out as a flaw because the entire plot is reliant on their ability to make mistakes, and they certainly passed with flying colors. Using the crew’s mistakes as a vehicle to progress the plot really took away from the stakes of the film. Is the alien they encounter all that terrifying if all it ever does is take advantage of… well, the advantages that the crew gives it? While the crew in the original Alien movie was certainly not mistake-free, they were still able to come up with logical plans that they could realistically execute. The terrifying factor of the alien came from its ability to constantly outsmart the crew and exploit the holes in their plans. [WARNING: Potential Spoilers Ahead] In Life, however, while the alien does prove its intelligence, it never really has any obstacles to overcome because of its preexisting physical advantages, the constant mistakes of the crew, and even external forces that work in its favor. There was never any reason for an audience to think or hope that the crew ever had a chance. [End Spoilers]
Last thing; but it’s a positive one, so stick around. There are several aspects of this story that are cleverly written into the story. Specifically, certain characters have specific attributes that might not seem important at first, but Espinosa draws your attention to them because they are going to play big parts in the plot.
We all know that Jake Gyllenhaal is an excellent actor, and we all know that Ryan Reynolds is a terrific character actor. It’s no surprise that both work really well in this film. That being said, I think Gyllenhaal’s character was written a little flat, but I was running out of room to discuss that in my previous section.
The real surprises in this film came from the rest of the cast (I wouldn’t call anyone part of a “supporting cast,” because each character is essential to the story even though they obviously will not have equal screen time). Rebecca Ferguson was great as the Ripley-ish character. Hiroyuki Sanada and especially Ariyon Bakare were great as the pilot and science officer respectively.
For the most part, the visuals aren’t as mediocre as I expected them to be given Espinosa’s history. The film opens with a great long-take (that is compiled by using CGI like they did in Birdman) that quickly establishes everyone’s roles and the setting. After this, the directional style is mostly conventional, but it is not distracting or just plain bad.
The CGI is actually pretty good in this film. I have not done my research into how the zero-G was filmed (the entire movie is in zero-G), but my assumption is that it was done via CGI, and it works fairly well. I do think there are times toward the beginning where the alien looks noticeably fake though. I remember one specific scene where the alien is purposefully left out of several shots even though its size should have rendered this an impossibility.
The things that stand out the most are how brutal a couple of the death scenes are. Sure, on paper, it looks like they just took a survey that asked people “what’s the worst way to die in space” and wrote in the top answers, but Espinosa paid special attention to these scenes to make as many people as he could squirm in their seats.
Check out my X-Factor for more on this section.
X-Factor: 5/10: “Shell Game” [Potential Minor Spoiler]
If you’ve ever gone to a football game in which the home team was sponsored by Papa John’s, then you probably remember this as the “which helmet is the pizza under” game. At the end of the movie, Espinosa tries to play a visual “Shell Game” with the audience in order to conceal what is happening. I don’t think this was a smart move on his part. When I watched the movie, I was able to deduce what was happening simply because Espinosa was playing games with me. Had he not played games, then his “revealing of the shell” might have had a greater impact on me than what he was going for.
It’s not just the fact that I knew what was going on, it’s also the fact that what actually happens is a trope that has seemingly entrenched itself in all modern horror movies. I was hoping that Life might not fall into this trope, but I was mistaken.
Life is, at the very least, a decent sci-fi horror flick that pays homage to its great predecessors. At worst, it’s a cash-grabbing attempt that hopes to revive the sci-fi horror genre just in time for Columbia’s/Sony’s upcoming movies that would likely fall into similar genres: The Dark Tower, Venom, and of course The Emoji Movie. If you’re looking to see a movie this weekend, I would certainly recommend this one over Kong (how it has a better score on RT is beyond me). However, I would have to throw in Beauty and the Beast (yes, I know it’s Disney, but I’ve at least heard decent things about it) and, surprisingly, Saban’s Power Rangers movie as potential flicks-to-see this weekend as well.