I’ve been talking quite a bit lately in my reviews how horror is going through something of a mini-Renaissance of late. It seems the writers, directors, and producers of these films have at long last figured out that audiences are tired of and want more than jump scares, story arcs that work only because of idiotic decisions, and cheap camera tricks meant to mislead the viewer but ultimately just very temporarily conceal the plot holes riddled throughout the story. Life is the first science fiction horror film which is a part of this trend, and it continues it admirably for the most part, but it unfortunately does fall prey to a few cliches and traps at times.
Life is the story of six astronauts from around the world living and working on the International Space Station. A sample collected by a probe on Mars leads Earth scientists to believe that there could once have been extraterrestrial life on our neighbor, and it is up to these six to grab the sample and then study what it contains. A dormant, but definitely living, single celled organism is found amongst the Martian sample and humanity now knows for certain that we are not alone in the universe. As to what happens next, I did mention this is a horror movie.
Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the writers of Life, are most definitely at least acquainted with biological science, as the life form they discover is based on what we know of evolutionary and biological sciences today. As they study it and discover its nature we see a creature that is completely different from anything living on Earth, but still follows the laws of Natural Selection. I am far from a scientist myself, and biology was absolutely my worst subject when I was still in school, but I could tell that the writers were very concerned with creating a truly alien being, but also a truly realistic one. It was so well done, in fact, that at a point in its growth when the alien develops something approximating a face, I was a little disappointed that those involved in making the film, whether it be the writers, the director, or someone else, didn’t completely commit to giving us this truly alien thing.
The human characters in the film are a bit of a mixed bag. All are realistic, perhaps too much so, and fleshed about as well as can be expected for six people you get barely an hour with before Life does what horror movies do. We understand quickly and naturally their working and emotional relationships to one another, who is the boss, who are friends, who are attracted to each other, and so on, but we are never given enough time to learn who any of them truly are. The Japanese member of the crew works on the stations mechanical parts and his wife gives birth to a daughter early in the movie, and that’s about all we know of him, and that’s more than a few of the other members of the crew. I like that none of the characters are stereotypes, and that the actors, and thus the fictional crew, have good chemistry with one another, but only two of the actors, Ryan Reynolds and Ariyon Bakare managed to give performances strong enough that I actually cared about them as individuals, something pretty necessary in a horror flick.
The conceit of the movie taking place entirely on the International Space Station also works wonderfully for the most part. The opening scene in the film gives us an excellent idea of what it would be like to live in space as it shoots our characters in close ups with no anchor to give the camera a focus. It will weave around, switching directions slowly, and even gradually turning upside down giving us the idea of what being weightless inside a technologically advanced tin can would feel like. After establishing this feeling, the weightless camera does go away, probably for the better, but we are still given a very claustrophobic but now somehow familiar environment for our characters to be hunted down in. I was reminded a lot of Alien while watching Life, it’s very obviously the biggest influence on the creators of this film, but unlike the Nostromo in that movie, the International Space Station has rooms so small that two people inside any one of them would become very cramped, making for an even more frightening setting once the festivities get underway. But, much like the alien life form itself, someone in the making of the film could not completely commit to their ultra realistic and incredibly cramped setting and had to give us in the finale a plot device that entirely ruins that spell cast on us which made us believe that this really could happen.
The camerawork and the special effects in the film also fit the bill of the rest of the film. Very unobtrusive and realistic for the most part. The alien life form itself does have a few problems with the realism of its CGI in places, but due to its design, these are easily forgiven and many may not even notice them. The camerawork is workmanlike and never relents on giving us the feeling of claustrophobia so necessary for the movie to work and shows us what we need to see without pulling cheap tricks… until the finale. This is another element of the film done so well until once again the film’s creators broke with the style of the rest of the film and rely entirely on a cheap camera trick for the film’s climax. I won’t say more than that, I feel badly about saying that much, but that cheap camera trick in the end was the most disappointing of this flawed, but overall really well done horror film, and I would be remiss in not mentioning it.
Final recommendation: If you are a science fiction or horror fanatic (or both), then this is a movie that will definitely please, even if it will never be listed among the classics of the genre. It’s a movie that tries hard to emulate Alien while still being its own entity, and in that it certainly succeeds. However, it’s a film that at times is too realistic for its own good when it shouldn’t be and can’t commit to its own tone in the end when it’s most important. Most everything about this film is really well done, and it’s worth seeing just for the alien life form they give us, but unless you are the type who must see everything possible on the large screen for the theater experience, then this is one you can wait for and rent eventually, or maybe see at a matinee so you can pay less and still get the full “we’re in outer space” experience.