A crew of six highly intelligent scientists seek the answer to the question of the existence of another lifeform. In ‘Life’, we get the story of the six-member crew of the International Space Station that is on the cutting edge of one of the most important discoveries in human history: the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. As the crew begins to conduct research, their methods end up having unintended consequences for them and the citizens of Earth, and the life form proves more intelligent than anyone ever expected. ‘Life’ stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds, it is directed by Daniel Espinosa, and is rated R for adult language throughout, some sci-fi violence and sequences of terror.
If you’ve seen one isolation in space horror movie, you’ve seen them all. Thankfully, ‘Life’ pushes past a conventional script by offering us artistic merit in the form of gorgeous cinematography, as well as a sound scheme that can at least present some peaking merits in an otherwise typical screenplay. This is a film that was originally slated to debut in May of this year, but got moved up two months to play against a March backdrop that is slightly less intimidating than that of the Summer blockbusters that invade around Memorial Day. It turns out that it pays off brilliantly, as Espinosa’s science fiction space shriek does more than enough to hold its own against previous similar offerings like ‘Alien’, ‘Event Horizon’, and leagues above the mindless ‘Apollo 14’. It’s solid proof that if you cast the big name actors, people will most definitely come, and this is a movie that is every bit as terrifying as it is cerebral. An ambitious float through the terrors of uncertainty that does more than enough to top Espinosa’s previous effort, 2014’s ‘Safe House’, also starring Ryan Reynolds.
What I love about the storytelling of this film is that it puts the characters first, and allows the story itself to follow those characters, meriting more positive returns when you care about their ordeals with this mysterious organism. Solid exposition time is depicted for all of them, and it’s in those introductions when the tragedy of this story and these people really sink into you. Space itself is an immense and unpredictable atmosphere to make a living in, and that lack of knowledge plays hand-in-hand to the kind of misfires that we make in decision making. It’s clear that this screenplay pays homage to those kind of films that adhere to the idea that man will be our society’s greatest downfall, and how sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone. I mentioned earlier that the film does play to conventionalism despite a first act death that was a little surprising for the name value expensed. Nothing in this film ever really surprised me, and that could be at the fault of seeing and experiencing all of these films, with all of their similar structures and conclusions. The film keeps its characters at the intellectual mercy of this creature, so the convenience of butterfly effects that render them helpless is a brief suspension of disbelief for minds supposedly as gifted as this crew. Even the conclusion is something that I accurately called once the setup become obvious. Even still, I can never say that the movie bored me. Perhaps a compliment to the performances of a charismatic cast that bring their A-game when acting against a CGI antagonist.
The design and computer generation of this property felt very in-sync with that of multi-cell organisms, and that attention to detail rarely makes this alien anything super extraordinary or cartoonish in terms of its capabilities. One thing is certain, this thing is very intelligent, mimicking and authenticating the responses and actions of the living properties around it. Perhaps my favorite aspect to its design is the growing of its physical stature. I love how this creature will often appear and disappear before our very eyes, and that shock and awe when it returns twice the size of when it left, made for an emphasis on urgency that never stops pumping. If I had one negative for it, I would say it was in the developing face of this thing in the third act, which reverted it to campy alien designs in other big budget space operas. Keeping this thing faceless and non-registering is what made its unpredictable movements so vicious and conniving in plodding, so the additions do occasionally render that originality uninspiring.
The visual backdrops of Earth and the surrounding nebulas captured the immensity in isolation with these characters forced to make their own under-prepared decisions for the fate of what hangs in the balance. With the camera styles in particular, I loved the revolving camera angles that followed our cast through the very tribulations of gravity. It’s no secret that I am not often a fan of flipping the camera upside down, but here it makes sense to put us in the middle of the chase. The tracking shots through many numerous tunnels were outstanding, playing to that vintage trick of associating the camera with that of the antagonist that is chasing the crew. Espinosa plays to the hand of claustrophobia so effortlessly, but then takes it one step further when it feels like such intimate surroundings continue on-and-on with a ship this intimidating.
The musical score by Jon Ekstrand also is weighed on heavily in capturing the very dread and doom that covers each scene like dense fog. So much of what Ekstrand does is dabbling in ear-piercing notes to capture the vulnerability of these characters navigating through a ship, where this creature can pop up at any time. This composition took me back to the days of 80’s horror scores, when music played a pivotal point in teaming with that of the monster that lurks behind every corner. An addition that can take any average or predictable sequence and make it that much more captivating by orchestrating terror in its most audible of forms.
Finally, there’s the cast that brings a collaboration of A-list performers to the overlooked stage of horror for an exceptional union. Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada. A cast this well known for big budget blockbusters was a thrill to watch to see them juggle the very tones of horror, and there are simply no complaints from any of them. Gyllenhaal’s character in particular is probably my favorite because there’s a lot about him that embraces the secluded environments of space and what benefit that holds for him. This is rare for a character to feel this way in movies, but it’s depiction offers a fresh and untold angle to this particular perspective. Sanada also commands vast intelligence and humanity in his grip, juggling the complexities of a newborn baby with that of the frightening discoveries that are constantly changing with him being galaxies away. Sanada’s character feels like the one with the most to lose, so our embrace of his well-being is one that never fades over the course of several different shifts in leverage.
At 95 minutes long, ‘Life’ doesn’t necessarily need to take its time getting to the thrills and chills of a story that exercises the themes of seclusion and claustrophobic tension. With an exceptionally likeable cast, as well as sound achievements in the filming and music departments, Espinosa’s space serial is a tantalizing thriller that orbits through a galaxy of conventionalism trying its best to weigh this story down. Fortunately, the unnerving social commentary on the mission at hand offers a self-reflective view on the kinds of missions that we deem as important.