A film review by Craig J. Koban March 31, 2017

LIFE jjj

2017, R, 103 mins.


Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. David Jordan  /  Rebecca Ferguson as Miranda North  /  Ryan Reynolds as Roy Adams  /  Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Kendo  /  Ariyon Bakare as Hugh Derry  /  Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerina Golovkin  /  Camiel Warren-Taylor as Dominique  /  Naoko Mori as Kazumi

Directed by Daniel Espinosa  /  Written by Rhett Reese  and Paul Wernick

The new science fiction horror thriller LIFE is a beyond obvious ALIEN knock-off, but it's also an exceedingly well oiled, exemplarily crafted, and reasonably suspenseful ALIEN knockoff that segregates itself far apart from other genre copycats.  

Director Daniel Espinosa (SAFE HOUSE) and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (DEADPOOL) are not trying to hide behind the fact that they're appropriating many of the core elements that made Ridley Scott's 1979 film so masterful (a group of astronauts aboard a space station are terrorized by an alien entity brought on board).  LIFE never scores points for originality, that much is certain. Yet, there's simply no denying that it's thrilling, finely acted, and is reliably intriguing and tension filled, which is much more than we can say for other extraterrestrial themed efforts. 

In LIFE'S defense, the makers here try to segregate themselves away from Scott's film in a few key areas.  Firstly, the space station in question is the Earth orbiting International Space Station, which gives the film an aura real world terror.  Secondly, the astronauts are all dealing with zero gravity on board, which adds a whole other level of nail biting terror when having to flee from an invading alien threat (what do you do when you can't...well...run away from a monster?).  Thirdly, LIFE does a solid job of immersing us in the daily grind and routine of its astronauts in its opening sections and takes time getting to its horrifying splattergorium of man versus E.T. bloodshed.  LIFE functions both as a fairly authentically rendered NASA procedural and as a B-grade haunted house in space thriller, which is a tricky dichotomy to pull off. 



Espinosa has a wonderful painterly eye for establishing shots right from the get-go as we are introduced to the International Space Station and its crew in what appears to be on grand unbroken tracking shot, as the camera careens through the tight and claustrophobic confines of the vessel (granted, I'm sure that invisible edits and some computer generated fakery were employed here, but never mind...it looks sensational).  The multi-ethnic crew is comprised off Rebecca Ferguson (the kick ass heroine from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION) as the stern and mission focused representative from the Center for Disease Control; the chief medical officer (Jake Gyllenhaal); the smart assed and insult spewing scientist (Ryan Reynolds), a crippled biologist (Ariyon Bakare); and Olga Dihovichnaya and Hiroyuki Sanada as a cosmonaut and engineer respectively.  Early on in the film they intercept a probe that's returning from Mars with some rock samples, which greatly fascinates the scientific impulses of the whole crew, especially with the tantalizing possibilities of the samples containing signs of life. 

Well, we wouldn't have a film called LIFE if those rocks didn't contain fossilized remnants of Martian life, and early microscopic analysis does indeed lead to the discovery of a very small biological entity.  When studied further the crew is stunned to see the alien life (dubbed "Calvin") evolve into a multi-celled organism.  When stimulated by electricity after it has achieved remarkable growth (when is this ever a good idea in a sci-fi horror film?), the gelatinous and octopus like alien reacts rather aggressively and nearly gnaws off the biologist's arm, leaving the crew in a state of frantic unease.  As the creature matures and grows larger, more aggressive, and smarter, the astronauts soon realize that their specimen is now a fatally dangerous entity on the station and must never make it down to Earth.  Containing the monster proves to be an ungodly challenge for all, seeing as Calvin is able to adapt to nearly any kind of environment, including the vacuum of space. 

As already alluded to, LIFE boasts some staggeringly impressive visual effects and production design, made all the more impressive considering that surprisingly low budget ($58 million) that Espinosa and company were forced to work with.  The establishing shots of the space station have an elegant grace about them, not to mention that Espinosa conjures up a strong and evocative sense of atmosphere on board the massive vessel (much like the Nostromo in ALIEN, the station here is almost a secondary character).  Considering that other recent space voyaging genre films like GRAVITY cost over three times more to produce, it's a wonderful surprise to experience LIFE and witness what a bravura job Espinosa does at giving his film a sense of scale and reality.  The visual effects work that vividly and believably makes the actors all look weightless are thankless, not to mention the stellar creature design work, which makes Calvin an endlessly frightening presence throughout the story.  Middling VFX and production design would have all but buried LIFE. 

And as far as sci-fi/horror goes, LIFE is genuinely terrifying at times and drums up a sustained mood of unease and dread as it hurtles from one chilling scene to the next.  This is assisted by the well assembled cast, all of whom thoroughly and emotionally invest in their respective roles to help sell the film's petrifying series of events (I liked Ferguson's ice cold and pragmatic turn, not to mention Gyllenhaal's cunning, yet sensitive performance the most).  One strong area of weakness in the screenplay, though, is that there's not much of an effort to really develop these astronauts apart from one another.  As the film progresses, they more or less become victims being served up to the alien ravaging slaughter (it's kind of enjoyable trying to predict whic big name star will go next, which the film teases us with sometimes shocking results).  I only wished that Reese and Wernick made theses characters a bit more fully fleshed out; despite some personality quirks, they're all pretty interchangeable. 

Furthermore, grounded logic is sometimes null and void in LIFE; the film is littered with incredibly intelligent men and women of science that nevertheless made some categorical dumb errors in judgment in terms of dealing with Calvin (one too many sealed doors are opened that keep the alien apart from the humans for this film's own good).  It's also soon apparent that LIFE has difficulty sustaining its already heavily borrowed premise as it hurtles itself towards a fairly action packed and exhilarating third act (which culminates on a neat little twist that you may or may not see coming).  Unfortunately, the novelty of the film's final few moments are kind of undone by how LIFE sort of struggles with its third act overall.  After a stupendously assured and compelling first half, LIFE sort of flounders in its tail end...but it's never dull, to be fair. 

And, yeah, maybe ALIEN's legacy - and the fact that more ALIEN films are on the horizon - overshadows even the finer aspects of LIFE, so much so that ignoring such thorny comparisons proves to be impossible.  However, I appreciated the impeccable filmmaking craft that went into LIFE and the guileless confidence that Espinosa has at the helm of it all.  We've seen so many permutations of the ALIEN premise over the years that it's hard to look at films like these with a fresh new lens.  Thankfully, LIFE boasts an impressive cast, an equally remarkable and consummate visual sheen,  and a menacing aura of nightmarish anxiety that works well in its favor.  The film will never get top honors for audacious innovation, but it's a commendable workmanlike effort for all involved that worth seeing.   


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