The line between “homage” and “rip-off” is a fine one and this latest sci-fi horror, Life, continually crosses it with a surprising lack of self-awareness given the talent involved. Its director, Daniel Espinosa, has a decent track record with taught B-movie thrillers, such as Safe House and Child 44, and a trip into space to work with two of Hollywood’s hottest leading men would initially seem like a giant leap for his career.
But in actuality, it’s only a small step for the director as Life can’t reach an escape trajectory to pull away from its rather obvious influences that keeps his film firmly in the orbit of the genre’s trappings.
THE GRAVITY OF THE SITUATION
We start aboard the International Space Station as a multi-national team of astronauts and scientists are getting excited about the arrival of a probe returning from Mars that may contain alien biological microbes. Starting as he means to go on, Espinosa delivers the first scene in one continuous take floating through the station introducing each character while sticking closely to the mantra of “Anything Alfonso Cuaron can do…” with a shameless steal of Gravity‘s vastly superior opening shot.
After Ryan Reynold’s engineer, Rory Adams, catches the incoming probe with the station’s retrieval arm, Life wastes no time in getting to the crux of proceedings with tests beginning in earnest on the single-celled organism as Ariyon Bakare’s scientist, Hugh Derry, stimulates it back to life in his quarantined lab. The newly discovered life form initially seems harmless and even earns itself the moniker “Calvin” given to it by some school kids back on Earth.
We get our first sniff of tension amongst the crew when Hugh breaks the quarantine protocol put in place by fellow British doctor, Miranda North, and earns himself a telling off from her and Jake Gyllenhaal’s ex-military vet, Dr. David Jordan. And because Hugh hasn’t been quite flagrant enough in handling a potentially contagious and volatile alien being, he decides the best course of action is to poke it with a mini cattle prod, just to see what happens (he must have gone to the same university as the scientists in Prometheus). The small but mighty Calvin doesn’t take kindly to this approach and wraps himself tightly around Hugh’s gloved hand before mounting an escape.
Once Calvin is loose, Life flips a coin calling heads to rip off Alien or tails for The Thing. And heads it is…
LOVING THE ALIEN
What follows is pretty much beat for beat an imitation of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic, except without the measured pacing or holistic characterization that made Alien an undisputed masterpiece of the sci-fi horror genre. This isn’t to say Life can’t summon up its own memorable moments with film’s standout sequence being a tense spacewalk that demonstrates why water in a spacesuit can be just as terrifying as a martian squid with a penchant for human flesh.
Actually, for the most part, Life is genuinely tense and rattles along at a breathless pace. It makes it clear early on that any of the crew is fair game, A-list star or not, and the magnificently photographed space station interiors feel suitably claustrophobic and isolated. Life doesn’t skimp on actual science either with some impressive attention to detail of how astronauts get by in zero gravity. It may not be bringing anything fresh to the table but it justifies itself with committed execution that belies the film’s slightly modest production budget.
While such a lack of originality can often be excused by Life‘s earnest delivery, when that delivery goes awry, it could well test your patience.
After setting everything in motion so efficiently and competently, Life inexplicably fumbles a couple of set-pieces at the end of the second act that saps the film’s hard earned momentum. This leads to us trudging rather than rushing towards the film’s climax, where it regains its form and (literally) sticks the landing with a sly sleight of hand.
At just under 100 minutes, which actually feels like less, Espinosa probably had more time than he thought to flesh out a few more scenes and characters. As each astronaut is dispatched by either Calvin or the perils of space, it feels more like the script is ticking off a list than losing a life and, in a few instances, the editing is guilty of rushing to artificially create excitement.
All in all, though, Life does find a way -but only by standing on the shoulders of the obvious pioneers of the trapped-in-space concept. That it’s not the least bit embarrassed by this will most likely win some people over but others may not be able to forgive its occasional wobbles on such well-worn tracks.
‘LIFE’ IS A CINEMATIC TRIBUTE ACT THAT HITS ALL THE RIGHT NOTES BUT CAN’T QUITE REMEMBER ALL THE WORDS.