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John’s Horror Corner: Life (2017), the incredibly intense Sci-Fi thriller that relies equally on great characters and a great monster.

March 26, 2017

MY CALL:  Despite not having much of a story, the characters and creature development breathe heavy tension into Life. It’s a satisfying rollercoaster of fun, but packs none of the moral or heroic punch of Alien (1979).  MORE MOVIES LIKE LifeSpecies (1995), Mission to Mars (2000), Red Planet (2000), Apollo 18 (2011), Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Prometheus (2012).

Orbiting Earth on a research space station, six astronauts intercept a vessel containing proof of life on Mars: a dormant, flagellate, single-celled organism.  They quarantine the life form, provide nutrients, and watch it grow in a controlled environment.  But its metamorphosis finds nothing like the “single-celled” organisms we know on Earth and the term “controlled environment” never seems to go as planned in these movies, does it?

Life (2017) features a premise we’ve obviously seen before.  There’s a major discovery of life beyond our solar system, something goes wrong, and a crew with good intentions is trapped with some sort of alien organism driven to kill them.  Whereas past movies took us deeper into space or on planetary surfaces (e.g., Mission to Mars, Red Planet, Apollo 18) and others brought the discovery to Earth (Species), this is a lot more like Alien/Aliens (1979-86).  And while some are calling this sci-horror; it’s nothing at all like Event Horizon (1997)—yes, it’s scary, but not that kind of scary.  However, it certainly boasts seat-gripping suspense.  I spent much of my movie-viewing experience feeling VERY NERVOUS in an awesome way.

What’s really wonderful about this film is that the entire cast really delivered. The stakes are high, the consequences get dire, and everyone performs excellently. Each character had their own flavor, as of course they should.  Our introductions remind me of Alien (1979) and Sunshine (2007); everyone has their own impetus, or thrill, or sense of duty, or desire for discovery; all of them with their own idiosyncratic demeanors that show us who they are without relying on senselessly expository dialogue to explain them away.

Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Nightcrawler) plays a doctor who feels more at home in zero gravity than on an over-crowded Earth, Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible Rogue Nation) is our mission commander forced to make tough protocol decisions when lives are threatened, Olga Dihovichnaya brings the compassion, sci-fi favorite Hiroyuki Sanada (Sunshine, 47 Ronin, Extant, Helix) plays the engineer and family man, Ariyon Bakare (Rogue One, Jupiter Ascending) is the xenobiologist, and Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, The Voices, RIPD) is our down-to-Earth comic relief.

Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) has worked with Reynolds before and knew how to use him best—capturing his snarky charm and anxiety when appropriate.  When things get iffy Reynolds’ character is the mine shaft canary.  Reynolds has recently done some less-than-celebrated films (e.g., Self/Less, Criminal, The Captive), but his fans will love him in this (think more Deadpool, Mississippi Grind).

More than any of the human characters, the creature undergoes such development!  We, the audience, are caught up in the discovery even though we saw the trailer and know things will go horribly wrong.  So, while the creature seems almost cute at first, we keep wondering when and how the “life form” will become a “monster.”  This alien is not the communal mass of single-celled organisms you learned about in biology class, nor will many find its intelligence credible.  To that I say, get over it!  Just make the submission that this is from a world we don’t know, has cellular capabilities we don’t have, and accept that this could happen.  Once you do, this creature terrifies us as it hunts crew members.

They even gave it a name: Calvin.  Of course, they named Calvin when he was much less developed and was warmly neotonous. But the personifying nature of giving it a name (“Calvin”) makes things feel more personal (e.g., OMFG where is Calvin? Calvin got him! Calvin is in the air vents.). And speaking of intense, I feel the need to remind you that this was unnervingly thrilling!  If you’re jumpy, you’ll jump a lot. If you “never scare” like me, you’ll still get startled.  Things get creepy when Calvin gets methodical.

If you’re looking for a deep plot, you won’t find it here.  The story itself is nothing special—it’s the gift wrapping, really, for the intense thrill-ride within populated by great characters and a menacing alien force.  As such I recommend this more as a fun and thrilling ride rather than a praising its merits as a film.

The ending is GREAT.  I sort of saw it coming; but I wanted this ending and I loved its execution.  Some may roll their eyes, but this ending really draws attention to how things can go so horribly wrong and unplanned when things come down to a few survivors, a heavily compromised ship, and a deadly alien stranger.  It also brings a dark poetic justice to the title—as if it refers as much to life’s discovery as life’s own drive for preservation.

I LOVED this movie.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2017 9:04 am

    I am all over this movie. A must-see!

    • John Leavengood permalink
      March 27, 2017 5:31 pm

      I loved it. Very exciting and it strikes me as highly rewatchable.

      • March 27, 2017 6:41 pm

        I shall be exploring this post-haste. Perhaps a rare trip to the multiplex for this one methinks.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      March 27, 2017 6:49 pm

      The nature of the tension works tremendously well on the big screen. Drop the cash and go. Go yesterday.

      • April 6, 2017 5:28 pm

        Damn I’m glad I did. What a superb movie. Critics have been way too harsh as per usual.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      April 6, 2017 6:06 pm

      I saw one review (by someone I respect and whom you also know, I expect) titled “Lifeless.” Critics can get too caught up in one aspect of a film–in this case, the lack of significant character development and a very basic story. But I guess I’m guilty of it from time to time. I thought the characters were outstanding…rather than being deeply developed they come off in more of a “one-act play” sort of fashion as we get a snapshot of their lives. The real “character development” is actually in the creature and how “he” is addressed and realized. I thought it was outstanding. And so tense!

      • April 6, 2017 6:14 pm

        Perfectly stated John and you hit the nail straight on the head. I am a simple man to please with movies and too many people get caught up in hype, good and bad. I reckon time will be kind with this one and opinions will soften in years to come but, I say, why fucking wait? If a film rocks balls then it rocks balls, simple. I try and apply forward perspective with a film like this. I know you get that as we’re cut from the same filmic cloth.

  2. March 27, 2017 9:37 am

    This movie sounds great, really creepy, will have to see this!

    • John Leavengood permalink
      February 21, 2020 3:47 pm

      Did you ever get around to seeing this?

      • February 22, 2020 4:32 pm

        You know I never did, completely forgot about it until I read this comment. One more to add to my list of films to see. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. March 27, 2017 11:52 am

    Great review. Concise and very readable. Good job.

  4. March 29, 2017 6:53 am

    Space is coming back in a huge way lately, must give it a look

    • John Leavengood permalink
      March 29, 2017 12:18 pm

      Honestly, I was nervous. Despite the great cast and effects promised by the trailer, trailers are SO GOOD at lying to us these days.


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