This Thing Is on Life Support
LIFE is the story of what might happen if a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station were to discover and nurture an alien Martian life form. As interesting as it sounds, the premise hits some serious stumbling blocks on its way to becoming the tension-filled science-fiction thriller it wants to be. Aside from a plot that borrows early and often from nearly every retro sci-fi film ever made (let’s just call LIFE a direct Alien knock-off), the film is hobbled tremendously by a lack of hope. It’s difficult to create the needed tension when characters face off against an insurmountable foe. And it becomes clear early on in LIFE that the threatening alien life form cannot be defeated. It survives fire, intense cold, lack of food and oxygen, and even withstands the harsh extremes of outer space.
So, what are we, as an audience and fan of the genre, to hope for? Interesting characters? Not really. Despite a healthy cast of A-listers, there’s very little in the way of robust personality on the entire ship, and we certainly don’t give a hoot about a single one of them. The international crew consists of spacewalk specialist and 473-day ISS veteran David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), mission specialist Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), CDC microbiologist Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), flight engineer and elder statesman Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), paraplegic scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), and Russian Cosmonaut Ekatarine Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). It’s fairly early on in the film’s first act that we realize every one of them is but a flimsy cardboard target to be felled, one by one, by the far superior alien creature. They don’t stand a chance.
So, what’s in it for us?
Well, for starters, Nigel Phelps’s production design is truly spectacular and absolutely believable. The first act is mostly spent getting us familiar with the claustrophobic confines of the gravity-free ship. Long tracking shots through the narrow corridors give us a convincing idea of the peculiarities of weightlessness, but it is impossible for us to feel the real danger of being chased by the growing creature when we don’t have a good idea of the ship’s layout. The idea of running from danger works in a familiar environment, say like in a damp basement or a dusty attic, but watching the hapless victims traverse a never-ending cascade of passages, holds, and airlocks that all look the same never brings us in the moment. A better understanding of staging and visual logic by director Daniel Espinosa would go a long way in convincing us of the real danger at hand.
There’s another aspect of LIFE that is handled quite well and actually works despite all the other things that don’t. The tentacled creature is simply cool as hell and one very bad dude. We first meet Calvin -- so named by excited schoolchildren back on Earth -- as a single-celled amoeba-like organism in a petri dish. But given the proper environment and temperature, the little bugger not only adapts but also takes the fight to survive very seriously. Poked, prodded, and brought to life by Derry, it grows bigger, stronger, and smarter as the plot moves along and is quickly perceived for the real danger it represents. It scurries about the ship with a creepy flourish that is virtually inescapable -- think of Hank the octopus in Finding Dory. And that is where things start to unravel.
As the cat-and-mouse game continues, we learn that Calvin cannot be contained or defeated and will always adapt to everything the crew throws at him. While the adage that life always finds a way is certainly applicable here, where’s the hope? Where’s that tiniest sliver of belief that everyone can make it out of there alive? Without either there’s no genuine tension. And without that, there had better be some grand thematic things say about life, its origins, or our relationship with the unknown. There are not.
LIFE is beautifully rendered and feels scientifically accurate, but it isn’t very smart. And without our total buy in, the whole thing feels like a fascinating “what if” premise ruined by “now what” execution. Call 911. This thing is on life support.
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated “R” for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.