A good sci-fi looks into the future and tells you what could be. A great sci-fi looks into the future and can also tell us who we are now. Life falls into the fist category lacking the depth and subtext of the classics. This isn’t to disparage the film; it’s great at what it has – adrenaline, a fascinating plot, and a great building tension that crescendos in the final act. Life is an above standard blockbuster horror-sci-fi.
The strongest component Life has going for it is its dramatic engagement that scintillates from beginning to end. Piggybacking off the ever fascinating Martian life hypothesis, Life doesn’t wait long to dive into the interesting stuff. When things go wrong on board the ship the film diverts into a pick ’em off one by one creature feature. It’s ordinarily a tiresome plot device yet the order in which they go makes for an interesting journey. Cementing this is the fact that the crew consists entirely of rational scientists and doctors who don’t make the clichéd mistakes that horny adolescents make in these monster movies.
With a cephalopodan protagonist trapped in a claustrophobic space ship, the comparisons to Alien are impossible to ignore. Yet it’s their dissimilarities which are of more interest. The Alien series was broadly about hope and touched on the distinctly earthly themes of motherhood and the holy trilogy. Life could be described as the inverse to Alien. Instead of hope there is an vacuum of optimism that fills the space of the film. The creature is antagonised and nurtured by a father and the film is steadfastly atheistic. More than anything though this film is about despair. It’s an interesting direction in an age of studio-tested happy endings.
It isn’t just the Alien series that Life draws upon. It also builds upon and borrows from films such as Gravity and The Thing. Ryan Reynolds even drops a Re-Animator reference early on. Speaking of Reynolds, you can add this to the increasing list of films where he plays the same jockular, likable version of himself. It would be getting tiresome if he wasn’t so damn likeable. I think it’s his irreverence that resonates with an Australian sensibility that makes it hard to hold his dismal efforts against him. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson do much better as the other two westerners on board. The other actor of note is Hiroyuki Sanada, memorable even with his limited screen time. Unfortunately, however, none of these characters are really fleshed out, and the film does all it can to plaster over the shallow character development. A skype call to Sanada’s character’s wife giving birth and an interview with a news network is all that really ties them back to Earth. A recurring child’s book about space with dualism of meaning and blunt symbology never really gels with the films pace.
Life has all the veneer of a sci-fi with characters that could have been better developed. A certain ambition and depth is lacking to truly classify it as great sci-fi. After the enticing opening the film consciously chooses to go in the direction of horror and adrenalin. Jake Gyllenhaal deserves big props; with his maturity and subtlety he almost makes the film. Director Daniel Espinosa’s first break from the crime drama genre has to be called a success overall, hitting all the right notes. Technically it has few flaws, but on the flipside it never really strives to be anything above just commendable.
Life is in cinemas from 23rd March through Sony Pictures.