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Review: Life (2017)

Life (2017)

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

Premise: Scientists aboard the International Space Station recover samples from Mars and discover a single cell organism hibernating in the Martian soil. The scientists reanimate the organism and it quickly grows into a threat to the space station crew and to life on Earth.

What Works: Life has the look of a space film like Gravity or Interstellar but this is a monster movie through and through. As that, Life mostly succeeds. The film has some sufficiently tense moments and even though it’s working through familiar material it does that material well. As a horror picture, Life includes some unsettling imagery that taps into deep-seated fears. The filmmakers successfully play upon our fear of alien life forms; this is the same anxiety that people have of snakes and spiders and other non-mammalian creatures and it’s used well in the movie. There is also some visceral terror as the creature behaves like a parasite; this also plays upon the audience’s primal fears of sickness and infestation. Monster movies require an interesting monster and Life succeeds at that. If nothing else, Life distinguishes itself with an alien life form that looks unlike anything in similar movies. In most of these kinds of films the creatures tend to be humanoid or otherwise resemble life on earth. The creature of Life is alien in the true sense of the word; it does not resemble a terrestrial creature. The film benefits from a well-executed slow burn in the opening of the film. It isn’t immediately obvious that the creature poses a threat to the crew and when that happens the attack is well staged. Like other monster-in-space movies, Life shares commonalities with haunted house pictures and the filmmakers of Life use the setting to create a feeling of claustrophobia. Almost the entire movie takes place inside of the ship and when the action ventures outside the filmmakers usually shoot it through a window or a space helmet. Life features an especially effective sequence of an astronaut being attacked by the creature while space walking and much of this scene plays out from her point of view. The visual panache punches up the material and makes Life visually interesting.

What Doesn’t: Life is a reworking of the monster-on-a-spaceship formula which goes back at least as far as drive-in movies of the 1950s like It! The Terror from Beyond Space. This kind of story has subsequently been seen in movies such as Alien, Leviathan, and Sunshine among many others. Life never shakes the impression that we’ve seen this movie before and there are a few plot points and set pieces that are right out of earlier incarnations of the formula. As a result, certain twists and shocks aren’t as surprising as they intend to be because astute viewers will anticipate them. That’s especially evident in a few places where the filmmakers attempt to outsmart the audience but anyone who has seen this kind of movie before ought to be ahead of the story. Life is a streamlined film but to an extent that it sacrifices characterization. There are efforts to tell the audience a little bit about some of these people but most of the space station crew lack defining characteristics nor do they win the affections of the audience so that we feel something when they are in jeopardy. There are also a handful of elements of Life that don’t make sense. The filmmakers play fast and loose with the rules of the alien lifeform; at one point the creature is ejected into space where there is no oxygen and it survives but later plot developments are contingent upon suffocating the alien by removing oxygen from the ship’s atmosphere. In a sillier kind of movie these inconsistencies would be easier to take but the filmmakers of Life establish a serious and credible tone that makes these mistakes more difficult to ignore.

Bottom Line: Life is ultimately a derivative piece of work but it does its formula well. This is a box cake mix of a movie; it’s familiarity and simplicity are part of its appeal. Life may not be great art but it is good entertainment.

Episode: #641 (April 2, 2017)