In the new science fiction thriller, Life, a team of scientists on board the International Space Station must weigh their own lives against that of everyone on earth when a single-celled organism recovered from the surface of Mars proves to be more formidable and more voracious than anticipated.
There’s an elephant in the room whenever someone attempts to do this kind of first contact narrative, and it rhymes with “balien”. Well, let’s get that out of the way now: Life ain’t no Alien, and journeyman director Daniel Espinosa is no Ridley Scott. Life, is however, better than any number of films that mine the same vein, although the bar is pretty low: Supernova, Species, Event Horizon, and so on. Perhaps the best adjective to deploy here would be “functional” – the film sets up its scenario quickly and effectively, establishes rules that it continues to play by throughout the running time, and only occasionally withholds information for the sake of surprise.
Really, it’s a procedural science fiction story, harking back to Golden Age literary works by the likes of Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, in which a team of competent heroes struggle against some kind of exotic threat with only their intelligence and their slide rules standing between them and oblivion. The slide rules have been updated here, but the basic concept is the same.
Unfortunately, the characters here are as thin as those of the jut-jawed scientists that populate those pulp classics, too; certainly none are as indelible as the crew of the Nostromo (look, it casts a long shadow, okay?). Gyllenhaal’s long-serving astronaut doesn’t like people much, Ferguson’s CDC liaison is by-the-books, Hiroyuki Sanada’s guy has a pregnant wife back on Earth, and Ryan Reynolds’ engineer is played by Ryan Reynolds. It’s hard to actually care for any of these cardboard cut-outs, which is surprising considering the calibre of the cast, and that is the film’s biggest failure.
We do get a pretty cool Martian monster, though, albeit one lacking somewhat in personality. The squidlike thing is a truly alien creation, acting not out of malice but running on a strong survival instinct that makes sense in the context of the film. It’s nowhere near as iconic as some of the truly memorable antagonists of yore -expect no tee shirts or action figures here – but it does a serviceable job.
Really, your reaction to Life is probably down to where this kind of genre effort sits with you. It’s a solid SF thriller that never manages to elevate itself into the realms of the truly memorable. Genre fans will probably be entertained, but don’t go expecting to have your hair blown back.