Come into this one expecting an elaborate & unique Sci-Fi experience, and you’ll likely be disappointed.
Come in expecting a taut, suspenseful thriller/horror and you’ll feel differently.
LIFE – directed by Daniel Espinosa – is essentially an old school monster movie, held up by incredible special effects. Don’t be discouraged though.
If you go in without preconceptions and watch without blinders, it’s still a pretty special experience.
The ISS – a multinational research vessel worth billions of dollars – is sent outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, housing 6 eggheads. The mission? to retrieve soil/rock samples originating from Mars. The crew stumble on something they weren’t expecting though, as biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) discovers a single-cell organism in the specimen: “The first definitive proof of life outside Earth.”
Experiments take place under quarantine, whilst the rest of the crew watch from behind glass and a vaulted door. Hugh eventually manages to stimulate the specimen with glucose and heat after testing multiple parameters, and the creature begins swimming around the petri-dish, sparking jubilation amongst the crew. Hugh in particular; being the biologist, is enamoured with the E.T.
The news quickly spreads via comms to Earth and the ISS begins live streaming to Times Square. A contest winner and representative of Calvin High School, Oklahoma, publicly interviews the crew as they show off the shuttle and explain their respective roles on board.
There’s ex-military doctor played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s clearly suffering the physical consequences of nearing the record for consecutive days in space; Ryan Reynold’s wise-cracking engineer and dare-devil, Rebecca Ferguson’s cautious CDC scientist, obsessed with protocol, particularly involving quarantine; Olga Dihovichnaya’s Russian crew commander and general overseer; Hiroyuki Sanada’s experienced and subdued tech’s & comms expert and the previously mentioned Ariyon Bakare; an eccentric English biologist who’s passion sometimes leads to negligence.
The contest winners announce to the crew over mic that they’ve decided to aptly name the Martian ‘Calvin’ after their school.
By the day (whatever the equivalent is outside the earths atmosphere), Calvin grows at a staggering rate. He begins as a single-cell organism and quickly morphs into a translucent starfish about the size of a hand. “he’s all muscle, brain and eye.” After upping the anti with attempting to further stimulate Calvin, Hugh’s negligence is brutally punished. Calvin latches onto the end of Hugh’s shock rod and crushes the bones in his hand like match-sticks. A few hysteric screams and expletives later Calvin manages to escape the confines of the box using a pretty frightening level of innovation for something so meagre looking. Without warning, the crew find themselves way out of their depth with this thing, as a series of gruesome scenes reminiscent of Alien proceed.
“Calvin doesn’t hate us… he has to kill us in order to survive.”
The film’s lingering suspense begins to reach it’s climax. As the crew diminishes, Calvin absorbs the necessary sustenance to grow into a translucent Kraken the size of a Rottweiler. What’s worse is that fuel is all but gone, and without thrusters the ISS is revolving along a trajectory that slopes into the Earths atmosphere. Definitely not good.
scientific pragmatism takes a back seat as the crew start acting on emotion; “I know it’s not scientific, but I feel pure fucking hatred for that thing.” The remaining survivors simply must find a way to ensure that Calvin doesn’t enter the Earths atmosphere, as it could jeopardise all existing life… whether they make it home or not.
This film excels when frantic action is taking place and edgy camera angles follow the crew using 0 gravity parkour to propel themselves through the narrow shuttle. There’s a few cool scenes in particular, where the audience sees through the eyes of Calvin; as a pulsing cellular film covers the lens. The level of CGI and special effects add hugely to the level of immersion here. Certain establishing shots of the shuttle floating through space are simply breath-taking, especially in IMAX.
It’s the brief intervals between the chaos where LIFE comes up short. The relationships marginally developed at best and heavy dialogue seems contrived and unnatural. There’s one particular scene where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character reads an old bed-time story while trapped with Rebecca Ferguson. You can tell that Daniel Espinosa has tried to add weight and insight here, but ultimately it feels like too little too late, instead it feels misplaced and frankly a tad awkward.
Fans of the Alien franchise probably wont look on this one too favourably for those exact reasons, as the series is renowned for quality storytelling as well as horror – especially with Alien Covenant set for release this year.
Despite its hindrances, this throwback monster movie is still a pretty exciting experience though. Veiled effectively by special effects and CGI, LIFE is a cool movie to watch with friends for a thrilling/horror experience. It’s one that wont particularly stick out in your memory given time and is by no means a masterpiece, but if you’re okay with that then LIFE still holds up well… unlike Calvin’s incubator.