Director: Daniel Espinosa
Genre: Horror, Sci-Fi
Sometimes I like to take a moment of reflection and appreciate how far we’ve come as a species, to the point where films like GRAVITY are no longer considered science fiction, despite being set in outer space and almost entirely rendered in post. Thanks to advancements in technology, what would have been a high-concept fantasy film 30 years ago can now be considered a drama that exists entirely within the realm of possibility. What’s more specifically intriguing is how this emerging normalcy of extraterrestrial settings shapes our perception of the wider spectrum of genres. LIFE is a monster movie staged exclusively onboard the International Space Station, but it treats its setting with the same understated familiarity that fellow slashers lend towards haunted mansions and cursed summer camps. If it weren’t for the extrasolar nature of the predator, LIFE would avoid the sci-fi label altogether.
That’s a pretty big “if,” however, as LIFE owes its entire existence to the monolith of sci-fi horror, ALIEN. Despite the ever-increasing accessibility of space travel, director Daniel Espinosa and company seem to have realized that a movie involving a team of astronauts getting picked off in a first-contact-gone-horrific would inevitably draw comparisons to the Ridley Scott classic. What turns out to be LIFE’s greatest strength, as well as its ultimate downfall, is its willingness to embrace its similarities to these films, rather than to pretend to be anything different.
“You guys got any copies of EVENT HORIZON in there?”
Shot-for-shot, beat-for-beat, LIFE mimics ALIEN to an uncanny degree. We open with the vastness of space, and are introduced to our spaceborne stomping ground via a backlit shot revealing a silhouette rather than a surface. The ISS is a massive structure, but miniscule when compared to the unending void that surrounds it. After recovering a damaged satellite containing soil samples from Mars, our crew of six resuscitates an ancient microbe, and accidentally unleashes Hell. The lifeform rapidly grows in size as it kills the hapless astronauts, as well as outwitting the survivors time and time again.
LIFE’s crew, much like the filmmakers themselves, have seen ALIEN, and are similarly aware of how eerily familiar their predicament is. Every measure taken by the astronauts to eliminate the alien is ripped from the playbook used by the Nostromo in their fight against the Xenomorph. What elevates LIFE above a tired retread is how it defies the viewer’s expectations at every turn. LIFE demonstrates that watching ALIEN three times isn’t all that effective of a crash course for combating hostile extraterrestrials, and the occupants of the ISS learn this the hard way, as every movie trope they wield against the monster backfires spectacularly. LIFE feels very much like an ALIEN clone tailored exclusively towards ALIEN fans. In the same way that a video game can be replayed differently to witness how the scenario changes, LIFE gives the audience a chance to watch ALIEN play out in a completely different manner, while still sticking to the same framework.
“No, but we have an old DVD of SPECIES II if you want that.”
The critical flaw in this exercise of subversion-through-mimicry is that in order for it to work, LIFE must flip every beat of ALIEN on its head. Unfortunately for LIFE, ALIEN had a rock-solid finale, the kind that can only be downgraded, not improved upon. The idea for LIFE’s ending is a good one, but is botched in execution. What could have been a chilling, ambiguous ending is instead reduced to an absolutely stupid fake-out for the sake of . . . unneeded closure? Sequel-baiting? LIFE proves to be a tragic example of a perfectly competent film ruined by the last five minutes. While 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE attracted boos and jeers from some for its out-of-left-field twist, LIFE did not have any comparable hoops it needed to jump through during production to justify such a scene. It’s dumb, it insults the intelligence of the viewer, and it spits on everything that came before it.
It’s a real shame, because so much else in LIFE screams excellence. Espinosa skillfully maintains an atmosphere of tension throughout the nearly two-hour runtime, and despite that unusual length for what amounts to a zero-G slasher, the pacing is taut and the action absorbing. There are some fairly inventive deaths here as well, and the largely practical production in general must be praised in its own right. Not a single person walks in this film, but must instead float weightlessly through the station’s cramped corridors. What could’ve easily have been an obstacle in creating good horror (what screams “terror” to your more: an astronaut lazily drifting down a hallway, or a teenager dashing out of breath and occasionally stumbling in a thick forest?) is somehow used as a tool instead. There’s a real sense of helplessness as these poor saps desperately try to out-float the space amoeba, not entirely in control of their speed or trajectory.
“That’s fine, I’ll just see if I can rent UNDER THE SKIN here instead.”
If there are any other holes in LIFE’s hide, it would be in the writing. Some of the characters are weak and/or boring, particularly Jake Gyllenhaal’s fatherly stoicism and his penchant for eye-rolling monologues. This can almost be excused for LIFE’s reflexive nature, but as STARSHIP TROOPERS demonstrates, you can take the piss out of sci-fi tropes and still have a compelling cast. The only compelling characters, a paraplegic scientist who is given “new legs” in space (Ariyon Bakare) and a technician who wants to meet his newborn daughter (Hiroyuki Sanada), are relegated to supporting roles, while Gyllenhaal’s borderline-parodic hero steals the spotlight. It’s disappointing, but slashers are one genre where you can afford to keep some distance between the audience and the cast.
LIFE makes the tragic mistake of backing itself into a corner where sticking to its guns means sabotaging itself in the ending stretch. It’s not original, but at least it steals from one of the best. Great aesthetics, a solid cast that manages to compensate for bad writing, and directorial decisions that are as bold as they can possibly be provide all the marks of an enjoyable, if unambitious film. Even plot holes and narrative contrivances can be excused for the sake of grand entertainment. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a viewer ignored logic for the sake of slasher spectacle. Yet while toeing the line between “rip-off” and “homage,” LIFE loses sight of what it means to be good on its own terms, and falls flat on its face at the finish line.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend