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LIFE (2017): Space horror just couldn't be scary anymore

Life creates some remarkable scares but eventually falls short of its potential due to the lack of life in plot development and character depth.

Working on the International Space Station, a six-member crew has to capture one last probe returning from Mars and retrieves a soil sample that might carry evidence of life. This multinational group comprises sulky medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), buoyant system engineer Rory Adams (played by Ryan Reynolds with his usual charm), quarantine officer Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, astrobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) who is paralyzed from the waist down, commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), and pilot Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada).

They find an inert, single-cell organism in the sample, and Hugh revives it. The thing then quickly grows into a multicellular being and is named Calvin during a live broadcast between the ISS and Earth. After an accident in the lab, it becomes dormant again, and Hugh uses electric shocks to reanimate Calvin. This action kick-starts a series of terrifying events in which all participants belligerently struggle for life.

Jake Gyllenhaal as David Jordan

Sony Pictures, in an ambitious scheme to sway theatergoers with its array of new sci-fi movies, released Passengers last winter, and that shiny mess of a space love story underperformed at the box office, partly due to critical flak. Its production design was stunning (with an Oscar nomination), but the story failed to add up to anything coherent and gripping enough. Life, their next film in this line, was moved up to March 24 from its previous schedule (May 26) to avoid direct competition with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Alien: Covenant. Overall, inserting an Alien-ish horror flick starring Reynolds and Gyllenhaal into this time slot seemed too precarious. Amongst movies like Kong, Beauty and the Beast, Power Rangers, and Ghost in the Shell, Life might find some franchise-based hostility, but had it proved to be captivating enough in this roomy breathing space for the horror genre, Life would have done just fine, eh?

Ariyon Bakare as astrobiologist Hugh Derry

Right from the get-go, Life leads the audience on an inviting tour—a seven-minute oner mapping out in our mind the basic structure of a sumptuous, labyrinthine ISS. Production designer Nigel Phelps and set decorator Celia Bobak took liberation to alter the corridors and to make it more cramped than in real life, which hampers the ability to have a full view on scary situations and therefore creates more intensified, lurking horror (since the crew already possesses modern equipment to track down Calvin on monitors). The station is, again, claustrophobic, the pathways are narrow, and outside is a vast vacuum of nothingness. With its competence, Calvin can be around any corner. Director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44), sought advice from Gravity’s Emmanuel Lubezki (no surprise) and later, worked with his DP Seamus McGarvey to make this one-take look authentic and cinematic in a zero-G environment. The shot also introduces the characters along with their own sectors and specified tasks. For this sequence, the six actors spent a month learning wirework and dance moves, resulting in the smooth, welcoming first impression into their coworking space.

Life’s most laudable accomplishment is how it fools around with The First Law of Tragicomedies in the first act (despite technically not being a tragicomedy/dramedy at all). After inserting some procedural unease of the mission, Life sets an on-cloud-nine tone by letting us see how Rory playfully catches the capsule (under a lot of pressure) and the crew spends time bonding. Everything seems optimistic, especially when humankind is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough: to discover a life form on Mars. In the next scene, the spectacle widens to Earth as a primary student gives this creature a buddy-buddy name—Calvin—like a pet to cherish. This ray of sunshine is accompanied by Rory’s mirth and constant profanity, setting a consistent approach for the movie to be enjoyable enough before the shocking tonal shift hits its unaware audiences. Credit where credit is due, the writer duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland, Deadpool) made use of their muse Reynolds, on his own and in his interactions with others, so well in this early stage. Pay attention to the use of profanity and you’ll notice a string of unnerving tension that ends in the middle of the movie.

Olga Dihovichnaya as Commander Golovkina and Hiroyuki Sanada as pilot Murakami

Life reaches its storytelling and atmospheric zenith after it segues from the first act to the second. It’s when Hugh pokes a back-to-dormancy Calvin in the lab with his cattle prod, and the electric stimulus possibly triggers Calvin’s survival instinct. Before all this, it was identified as “all brain, all eye, all muscle” since every cell is a neuron cell, a photoreceptive cell, and a motor cell altogether. Its development is sensational, moving quickly and aggressively from a phase to the next while Calvin rattles the crew with its insane durability and enmity. In time, this carbon-based organism evolves into a squid-like creature (not without the tentacles and tassels like a Lovecraftian monster) and displays physiological feats when enduring scorching fire or the sub-zero vacuum outside for a prolonged period. It’s even intelligent enough to outplay human characters on certain occasions and, of course, leaves behind a trail of death. The method of execution is very gory as seen in its first kill; the artistically gruesome images, with floating blood blobs, strike at our hidden fear of something slimy shoving into the mouth and eating up all the inside.

Be that as it may, the script gives out all of these creative “heavy-hitters” within the first 30 minutes or so. After that, Calvin only grows in size. It has no more trick under those tentacles. Though there are some attempts to bounce back to the psychological impact induced by the previous sequence in the lab, later situations—even backed up by foghorns and cold colorization—couldn’t recreate any fear of the unknown. Calvin’s abilities are not elevated and become a wasted chance to fuse the creature’s evolution with plot development.

Rebecca Ferguson as quarantine officer Miranda North

Conventionally, the crew gets some treatment of individual background and group bonding. The cynical, misanthropic David has stayed in space longer than anyone else and has no intention to return (too edgy?); Miranda is caring and stays by-the-book, given her profession; Rory is the comic relief, always acting on his urge; Hugh, in his condition, seems comfortable in space and is fascinated by the discovery of Calvin; Sho recently becomes a father; and Commander Kat is kind of just there to keep everything in check. They have great chemistry together as a group, shooting the breeze and trading pop culture references during shared meals. From early on, we can see that Life raises stakes and creates suspense by placing the odds equally on every member. Anyone can die. It pays off sometimes thanks to one character’s commitment and sacrifice, or another’s personal motivation to return to Earth, yet quickly loses focus on character writing. This compensation gives us no main characters because whoever gets left is the chosen one (if audiences didn’t check out the posters).

Hated by many science experts, the movie moves through plot beats by relying on characters’ idiotic actions. Most of them just act on a questionable mingling of curiosity and professional enthusiasm, though Hugh is also driven by his innate desire to explore and intervene. To be fair, opinions about this argument boil down to whether you can tolerate scientists’ lame decisions against regulations and protocols to have dramatic pushes or not.

Life is the story about two life forces collide; the ambition for discovery meets the will to survive at any cost. The movie has some merits when it comes to creating remarkable, genuine scares but eventually falls short of its potential due to a lack of life (in its broadest sense) in plot development and character depth.