MARCH 24, 2017
It's often said that horror is the one genre that doesn't require any stars, because people just want to be scared and it's easier to do that when it's a complete unknown playing the lead as opposed to Tom Cruise (The Mummy, coming this summer!) or whoever. But while it's true in general, there is still an obvious benefit to star power, which is why an Alien ripoff with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal goes to 3,000 screens while an Alien ripoff without them goes to the Syfy channel if it's lucky. But thankfully, Life has taken cues from other movies, notably Gravity and Apollo 13, making it the rare "An alien monster gets on the spaceship" movie that never loses focus of its sci-fi setting, making it seem fresher than expected and ultimately a rather enjoyable entry in this sub-genre, one that rarely graces the big screen (not counting actual Alien franchise entries, the only two I recall in the past fifteen years are Apollo 18 and Pandorum).
Now, please note that when I say this it's as an observation, not a critique - the irony about Alien being the one that we hold this sub-genre's standard to is the fact that its space setting really doesn't play much of a part in it once everyone's back on the ship. Our heroes are closer to truck drivers than astronauts, and large chunks of the ship just look like warehouses and maintenance tunnels - you can isolate a few scenes and show them to a newbie and they'd have no idea it was supposed to be a space-set film. There's no such chance of that here; the setting is the International Space Station, and everything is cramped and modular - plus you can almost always see outside into the darkness of outer space. And even more than that, our characters almost never sit down and certainly never walk anywhere (except on the exterior of the ship), as they float around for nearly every scene in which they're being chased or are trying to isolate "Calvin", the alien lifeform that follows tradition and tries to kill everyone on board while they work to make sure it doesn't get to Earth.
Even their methods of trying to kill the thing are more rooted in NASA than we usually see in these things. As they obviously have no weapons, our heroes' methods of flushing out/containing/killing the thing involve, for example, shutting off oxygen to key areas to lure him to where they want him. There's a sequence where it manages to get outside, and finds a way back in through one of the six thrusters, but as they don't have a visual on all of them they need to watch the meters for temperature changes within the thruster chambers. When the temp changes, they engage that thruster hoping to blow him right back out into space - but by doing so they are also pushing the station closer to the atmosphere, which is obviously not a good idea unless they're sure he's dead/gone. It's that sort of stuff that more than makes up for the fact that it does borrow from Ridley Scott's textbook more than a couple of times, as both films, for all their details and differences, are about an alien monster getting on a ship and picking off its crew one by one.
But hey, again, we don't see those on the big screen as often as we might, and it's not like the trailers tried to hide that fact. Indeed, I commend the trailer editor(s) for not cheating a single thing and giving us plenty of money shots, but expertly crafting them in a way that keeps the movie surprising even though we've seen a lot of it already. For example (not a spoiler, but it will lessen some suspense), the trailer shows us the alien latching itself onto that guy's hand, so we know that it's coming - but it's not the first time he engages with Calvin in that matter. So every time he goes to study it, we get tensed again, wondering if THIS will be the time that he gets nabbed. The editors also re-arrange the footage in a way that makes it look like some things happen early on actually happen in the 3rd act, and vice versa - the first death happens only about twenty or thirty minutes in, and it works like gangbusters. Speaking of the deaths, they're not the main reason the movie got an R rating (the F bombs are more to blame for the most part), but there's a subtle gruesomeness to them all the same. Calvin is fond of slipping inside of a body and eating its nutrients from within, and since everything's in zero-gravity you get lots of tiny blood droplets floating endlessly from a victim as they expire, with their corpse just floating in a hallway or whatever for the rest of the movie.
As for Calvin, he's a fairly unique monster himself, in that he is not humanoid in any way shape or form (it's a long time before a face-like appendage is even made visible) but more of a cross between a plant and an octopus? He gets a bit larger after every kill but he's never even as big as any of the characters, which is rare for this kind of movie as you're expecting some oddly shaped stunt guy to don a suit eventually. And like the astronauts he just floats everywhere, so it's a rare "flying" alien menace, plus his squishy nature allows him to get through tiny holes and vents easily, making containment a lot harder than simply closing a few doors on him. He's also exceptionally strong and can adapt quickly to new stimuli (and seems to be impervious to fire and other usual methods of harm), so the fact that he's a bit smaller than a Xenomorph or Leviathan ultimately means little in the long run. Oh, and if you're wondering, he's named by a contest-winning child back on Earth - as with the "how can we stop it" stuff, the writers really kind of thought through the reality of what would happen if some astronauts found proof of life on Mars, i.e. everyone back home would be excited and the astronauts would be on TV and seen as heroes to little kids.
On that note, the multi-national cast is pretty good, if not quite as balanced as the Nostromo or other ensemble crews. The ship's captain (Olga Dihovichnaya) doesn't get as much background story as her colleagues, and Hiroyuki Sanada's entire deal is shown on the trailer (he has a newborn kid!). And Reynolds lays on his wisecracking nature a little too thick in some scenes, as if he's only there as comic relief for the crew as well as the audience, though he thankfully knows to shut up when shit hits the fan. But they're all distinct individuals with clear jobs on the ship, as opposed to some others of this type where the crew seems a bit interchangeable. Here, when a specialist dies, that's it for that sort of thing - the others aren't trained to fix it. It doesn't get as coldly clinical as Sunshine (which co-starred Sanada, incidentally), but apart from one rather conventional scene where someone risks their life to save another who is being pulled away by Calvin, they all seem to get that dying is OK if it means the alien does too. That said, the "everyone must die" scenario doesn't quite play out as you'd expect, and I'll refrain from any further discussion on the film's conclusion other than to say it was a nice surprise.
Long story short, this is a case of "the devil's in the details", as it managed to take a very well-worn plot and make it stand out in a sea of imitators. Yes, the movie obviously has more of a budget than the stuff on Syfy and video store shelves of yore, but one must give credit to the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the Zombieland/Deadpool writers, playing it mostly serious for a change) for going in with the approach of "What would happen if this really happened" instead of "What would make for the coolest death scenes?" or whatever. With a little more character work (and a payoff for a bit about Rebecca Ferguson's blood that gets dropped) this would jump up to must-see status, as opposed to just "See it if you're in the mood for one of these, because it's one of the better ones". It can't ever escape Alien's shadow (the way the letters are spaced on the title card suggests they're not even really trying to, to be fair), but it makes a damn good effort, and gave me 100 solid minutes of entertainment regardless.
What say you?