Life has suffered from the outset by yet another case of the trailers giving away effectively the entirely plot of the film. Any follower of the alien/sci-fi genre of movies can write down everything that they will is going to happen, and will probably wind up being more than 90% right.
Even without spoilers from the trailer, Life has a pretty straightforward setup: A probe is returning to Earth after a mission to Mars to retrieve soil samples, and as it turns out, a microbe. Meaning it will be the first proof of life originating from beyond Earth. The International Space Station and it’s crew have the task of retrieving the probe and then investigating it’s cargo. Effectively the only cast in the film are the station’s inhabitants, which unfortunately are only drawn as the barest of characters: Hiroyuki Sanada as new father Sho Murakami, Ryan Reynolds as the plucky Rory Adams, Rebecca Ferguson as ISS commander Miranda North, Jake Gyllenhaal as loaner who likes living in space David Jordan, Olga Dihovichnaya as token Russian Ekaterina Golovkina, and Ariyon Bakare as Hugh Derry, the scientist fascinated by his new pet.
Developed with a relatively modest (by today’s standards) $58 million, the effects aren’t in the same league as Gravity. And while there are plenty of films with lower budgets that are awesome (Saban Film’s Girl With All The Gifts is proof enough of that), what doesn’t help is that it appears that no science advisors were engaged during script development. However genre audiences are fairly sophisticated at this point, and there are nearly zero scenes which show the characters acting as actual professional scientists and astronauts. No matter how many times the term “firewall protocols” gets thrown around will make the goings-on feel at all sincere. For whatever reason, Life exudes a self-bestowed gravitas with sweeping vistas of the ISS and cramped interiors, a heavy thumping score courtesy of Jon Ekstrand, and a solid cast of actors giving it their all. One can’t help feel that the film is very impressed with itself, but doesn’t have the goods to back it up.
It becomes even worse when writers attempt to invoke nerd-cred into dialogue – Reynolds makes a comment at one point about a scene being like something out of Re-Animator (a reference to the 1985 cult classic). However if you’ve got characters who are film nerds, they know what not to do while in the midst of situations like poking around at alien critters. Instead the film having the opportunity to using that knowledge to play on being self-aware like Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, they go ahead and wander through the genre tropes one scene at a time.
There’s no real tension because everything is so much of a paint-by-numbers affair, neither is there a jump scare to be found, and only one possible surprise – which I suspect most of the audience will pick up on the twist long before it’s actually revealed. The most basic ISS operations are entirely thrown out the window and science takes a backseat to the whims of the writers, along with an assembled crew of the most unprofessional individuals since Homeland’s Carrie Mathison. At one point Reynolds uses a flame a lab incinerator unit as a portable flamethrower at one point (because really, isn’t it always a flame thrower in space ever since they cobbled one together in Alien) and he spins around haphazardly blasting away – not only does it’s flame not result in any thrust (it would have clearly sent him flying around the lab), but also magically never catches anything on fire. It’s a nice touch that the chief scientist charged with nurturing the life form along from its microbe state is a paraplegic, so while in space he comments about how in space he can fly rather than being confined to a wheelchair. None of the characters are explored enough to connect with the audience, and by the time you leave the theater chances are you won’t even remember their names.
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