Life finds a way. Okay now that we have that obvious joke out of the way, let’s talk about Life. From the advertising, which seemingly came out of nowhere, I had a feeling that Life was going to be my kind of film; a claustrophobic deep-space horror. Ever since I saw Alien, I loved the story of being trapped in space with something that wants to kill people. Alien is of course the best of this story, but there have been numerous other great or just fun takes on it; Sunshine, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Alien sequels, Moon, these are all great films. Even Event Horizon, that film’s garbage but it’s also a very entertaining cult film. So, I was indeed looking forward to seeing Life. How does it fare against such classics of the past though?
The story of Life is a satellite picks up a pod that is carrying specimen samples from Mars. They discover a microscopic and constantly evolving lifeform among the specimens, which they name Calvin. However, as Calvin gets bigger and starts spooking members of the crew it promotes a certain crew member to attack him, which in term makes Calvin turn against us. As time goes on tensions rise as Calvin turns out to be the perfect killing machine and the crew must contemplate what this means for their lives and that of humanity.
When this film started, I was fully impressed. The ship has no gravity and that leads to the film’s most impressive feature. Throughout the whole film there is no gravity, at all. The cinematography and practical effects of the film constantly sell us on the fact that the characters are floating in space. Not to mention that the cinematography makes us feel like we are floating in space too, which does wonders for the claustrophobia of the film. And the effects on the satellite are top-notch. I have no problems believing that we are on the ship with them.
Of course, a good aid to this is the acting. There are only six characters in the whole film and all are perfectly played by great actors. Three of which are the poster boys (and girl), Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebeca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds. And I do mean to list them in that order, despite what the adverts may have you believe Reynold’s is not the main character of this film, that falls onto Gyllenhaal; which I have no problem with personally, with him being one of my favourite actors, but I can see it being at least surprising to others. The characters they play are sadly not that interesting, from the beginning you can more or less tell what’s going to happen to them and when, but they are still well played.
So, we have good performances, effects and a great atmosphere, so why is it my reaction to this film is actually pretty negative? Well that comes down to three sadly major issues I have with it. As I mentioned before the characters are not the most interesting. Three of them are clearly just going to be victims, one of them is clearly the one who’s going to go insane and the other two are just there to be our protagonists. Again, they are charming thanks to the actors, but they never really escape that issue. Another problem I have is the gore. Well, okay gore isn’t really the right word, cruelty is better fitting. The first victim of the film was just stomach churning; now Alien and other such films have the same formula, making the first death the most graphic so as to add tension throughout the film. But barring the fact that this is a horrible effect, the blood looks about as real as those seen in a Sy-Fy channel original, it’s not what I was expecting. Which I was willing to forgive, but then came the other deaths. Again, the effects on the gore, and even on Calvin itself, are not good and they also have this weird mean-spirited tone to them. I’m fine with “nasty” films and gore-fests, I don’t go looking for them but I have loved some that fall under that category (some like The Evil Dead, Dredd and the first two Hellraiser films are among my favourites), but when it’s nasty and cruel for the sake of nasty and cruel I have a problem. The thing is, I could have also taken that with a pitch of salt if it wasn’t for my biggest issue with it.
The story to Life is so muddled and so uninspired that I find it hard to give these past issues a pass. For the most part Life is just the story of Alien, with elements of Sunshine and some of the look and themes of Gravity mixed in there. And these films did it better, so why would I watch something that’s the same but worse? It also really is not as smart as it thinks it’s being. It acts like a commentary on life and evolution and are place within the law of nature, but it also wants to be a horror film with entertainingly gruesome deaths. This is evident with a somewhat Michael Crichton-esque start and a slasher finish. And that is what really hurts the story, its lack of focus.
Calvin is meant to be a strange innocent, made to attack because of how we treated it; yet it was only mistreated in one scene and then it starts killing everyone indiscriminately. It’s said to be the perfect killing machine, yet its final form is too large to hide and looks like a cross between a cobra, a squid and a plastic bag. And the film just makes it too over-the-top to be threatening. Calvin is only powerful because it can’t die. And I mean it can’t die; they burn it, freeze it, electrocute it, starve it, stab it, lock it outside the ship and it’s not even harmed. They even say that it could survive re-entry into a planet’s atmosphere; I’m sorry but that is way too far a stretch for me.
It’s a shame to say it but Life just wasn’t the film for me. It’s by no means a terrible film, it may not even be a bad one, but the negatives just kept me from enjoying it. I recommend seeing it if you’re really into these types of films or if you’re a big gore fan, I’d even say it’s worth a look for the space effects and performances if they interest you at all. But personally I would rather watch Event Horizon. It has its moments for sure, but Alien Life is not.
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