Amid style grappling with substance, the highly anticipated and vastly hyped Sci-Fi thriller gets a bit lost in space. Blatantly derivative of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), it’s difficult for Life to plot its own path in the solar system. While the similarities dabble in a kind of cinematic plagiarism, the differences highlight a different set of philosophical questions.
In 1979 NASA was four years removed from ending the Apollo missions and successfully landing the Viking 2 on Mars, keeping space exploration at the forefront of American pride and culture when Dan O’Bannon penned the screenplay for Alien. Although the script fantasized about and romanticized a colonized galaxy in the year 2122, it raised deeper questions about the reach of humankind’s aspirations and our place in the greater universe. Nearly 30 years after that film, we are closer than ever to realizing some of the goals set by the Viking missions. Set much closer to home, aboard the International Space Station currently orbiting Earth, Life attempts to tackle those philosophical questions in a more contemporary and realistic approach.
Daniel Espinosa struck gold with this directing job. He is best known for Safe House (2012) which boasted star power (Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds) and was surprisingly successful at the box office earning more than $200-million. Espinosa has a nose for tension and put it to good use, cultivating a claustrophobic and high risk environment on screen. Even during the most lighthearted sections of the film, there is a strong sense of foreboding lingering in the air. The pace favors this ominous tone and hurdles rapidly toward the main conflict. Unfortunately, this approach sacrificed character depth for overly cliche broad strokes. The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick lacks heart. The characters are devoid of genuine bonds with one another, so it’s hard for the audience to relate. A certain bond is established through situational necessity, so they aren’t completely unrelatable, but the personal investment just isn’t there.
The film is well shot with some creative zero gravity camera techniques. Seamus McGarvey has an extensive resume filled with vastly different projects. With a strong understanding of visual storytelling and a litany of experience, it’s no surprise the cinematography for this film is one of its biggest strengths. Although a couple establishing exterior shots early on artfully capture the majesty of the orbital setting, the majority of the camera work is much more subtle. Cramped and crowded, McGarvey brought the audience into the close quarter confines of the ISS. You feel like you’re there (or at least like the camera crew is) and that provides a level of intimacy that’s essential to telling this kind of story. Nigel Phelps’s production design, Steven Lawrence’s art direction, Celia Bobak’s set decoration and Jenny Beavan’s costume design married splendidly. With most Sci-Fi undertakings, creating a unique set and visual aesthetic from scratch are part of the challenge. Unlike many other entries in the genre those elements were much more grounded in reality. All these elements seemed to intentionally mirror the real life conditions aboard the ISS as closely as possible. There were no elaborate spaceships with a full dining area where crew members walked about effortlessly with the aid of artificial gravity. Tethering this lofty fiction to reality is a noticeable shift in the genre, much more in tune with what audiences saw in Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015).
Additionally, the extensive special and visual effects teams played a huge role in bringing the film and the creature to life. Looking at the incredibly extensive list of people who worked on these teams, it’s safe to say that seamless integration was both a priority and a necessity. There are some visual effects elements in seemingly every scene, many of which are subtle and serve to enhance the experience rather than dominate it. Whether it’s some weightless bit of minutia floating about the cabin or a beautiful rendering of the ISS exterior, the brilliance of the effects team is always right there just beneath the surface. As for the alien itself, I’m having difficulty pinning down who exactly was responsible for it but the nearest I can find is Mark Williams Ardington who served as creature supervisor and Stavros Fylladitis who’s listed as creature visual developer (my apologies). They managed to create a very malleable being, at times coming across as very non-threatening and conversely menacing based on any given situation. The most frightening aspect of the alien was the realization of it’s remarkable intellect. Bringing that to screen is no easy task without the aid of dialogue, so they deserve much credit for conveying a crafty and threatening level of intelligence through solely physical acts.
Anchored by the star power of Jake Gyllenhaal and the aforementioned Ryan Reynolds, the cast was good but not exceptional. I can’t recall seeing a project from either where I was left thinking they didn’t deliver. Both are seasoned veterans and played their parts well but, like I mentioned earlier, the characters just aren’t very deep. Hiroyuki Sanada’s character Sho is a new father, having watched his child’s birth via satellite, and his story should have been at the forefront as it’s the most relatable. Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson plays Miranda North although she mostly just hangs around not doing much. British actor Ariyon Bakare does a good job as Hugh Derry, the scientist primarily tasked with bringing the Martian organism to life. Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya rounded out the main cast as Ekaterina Golovkina, the brave and stoic captain of the crew. The international flare was a formula that worked well for a film like Prometheus but didn’t have enough time to mature in this one.
In hindsight, the premise is shaky and hard to believe, but it works in the moment without allowing the audience to ask too many questions. In combination with the very quick pace, there isn’t time to dwell on those elements. This movie had the potential to be so much better, so much more, than it was. The initial trailer was spooky enough to peak my interest and left enough for my imagination to fill in the gaps, but subsequent teasers alluded to an actual creature style alien and erased much of the mystery that captured my attention. Teasing a cellular Martian in a Petri dish left much more to the imagination than showing something with tentacles bursting out of a valve opening. My guess is the film wasn’t generating as much buzz as the studio expected/wanted compared to the slew of other high profile titles releasing in March and they felt it necessary to reveal more. The producers of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice fell into a similar trap when they burned the Doomsday card in their final trailer and ruined what would have made for a great reveal in the film.
Recommendation: If you are a fan of the Alien franchise like myself, you’ll like this movie but also recognize it as a clone and be disappointed. If you’re a newer fan of Sci-Fi and liked Gravity, I think you’ll enjoy this as well. There is enough entertainment value for general audiences and stays true to the genre for the hardcores. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a family film, but it’s not incredibly violent or vulgar.