Review: ‘Life’ steals playbook from ‘Alien,’ still manages to be forgettable

In space, no one can hear you scream. We’ve known that for nearly 40 years.

But space, perhaps, could also the place where we can send “Life” so it doesn’t have to be endured by us Earthlings.

Daniel Espinosa’s tale of space-station-turned-house-of-horrors is enamored with the 1977 classic “Alien,” so explicitly so that its adoration makes those of us on the outside of this clearly one-sided relationship feel a bit disgusted and uncomfortable by the way it borrows its every influence.

And it’s evident from the very first shot, the camera slowly and eerily drifting through space just like the start of “Alien,” making us feel an isolation that has become almost like a second cinematic home in recent years (See: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “The Martian,” etc., etc.).

Inside the International Space Station that eventually comes into view is a small crew of astronauts which has just captured the first irrefutable proof of alien life. One of the astronauts – Hugh, a much too optimistic scientist to be poking around in a petri dish of alien life – calls it “Calvin” out of a sense of affection. But (surprise, surprise) Calvin is a stone cold killer.

The movie wants you to think he’s offing the humans one by one out of a natural survival instinct, but let’s be real: Calvin is enjoying being a source of torment and terror once he breaks loose.

“Life,” admittedly, does an adequate job in the early going by steadily building momentum as Calvin squirms his way through the ship like he knows the place. There are one or two fairly memorable sequences as he terrorizes his victims, but for some reason the film feels the need to break that momentum at times by morphing from horror into character-driven drama.

There’s certainly enough backstory – too much, actually – to remind us that these bodies of flesh and blood have lives back on Earth. Well, that goes for everyone but Jake Gyllenhaal’s David, who prefers the lonely quiet of space (he’s been up there for over 400 straight days) to the chaos of life on our blue and green planet.

There’s too many characters for there to really be a leading force. For a film so heavily influenced by “Alien,” “Life” is missing its Ripley – the hero we know little about but has so much charisma that we can’t help but cheer them on.

By comparison, Gyllenhaal and co. are so lifeless that it’s hard not to look forward to Calvin play cat-and-mouse with them.

Speaking of Calvin, his appearance and cadence is an easy target for cheap laughs at first, but make no mistake that it doesn’t take long for him to turn into a human-sized storm of violence and destruction, even if his tentacle-y design is uninspired.

For a film with an R-rating, that destruction doesn’t seem to be as visceral as it should be, though. Take away a few pints of blood and the handful of F-bombs, and “Life” is a PG-13 film with a slightly higher box office intake. What Espinosa was trying to accomplish by dialing back on some of the horror elements, I’m not sure, but it certainly doesn’t work to keep “Life” back from its full potential.

And then there’s the ending, which is sure to polarize. I’m on the side of “that was completely unnecessary”; it feels like little more than a desperate attempt at relevance, a talking point for a movie that surely is aware that it doesn’t have much life of its own.

Ultimately what leads to “Life’s” downfall is its complete failure to make us care for its characters. At times it’s too morose for its own good. One minute we’re following Calvin as he crawls along the outside of the ISS, looking for a way in while the crew is desperately barring all hatches. The next minute, the astronauts are contemplating the meaning of life and questioning their mission, as if they could care less about the extinction of the human race.

“Life” a cheap knockoff of a classic in the genre, without actually being inspired by what made “Alien” so terrifying: a pinch of originality, a type of horror we’ve never seen. “Life,” meanwhile, would be tough to recommend over modern straight-to-DVD offerings that at least offer something new.

 

“Life” is rated R for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada

Directed by Daniel Espinosa

2017

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