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