Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: March 24, 2017
Greg, we just saw a movie that was certainly full of life. And its opposite.
For the life of me I can’t remember a more thrilling movie. Let’s recap:
The six-member crew of an international space station recovers a dormant single-cell life form from Mars. They successfully revive it, and soon it grows into a complex multicellular organism. Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) calls it “all muscle, all brain, and all eye.” Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) conducts experiments on it, and one day the creature grabs onto his hand and won’t let go.
And it begins killing crewmembers. Captain North begins to instantiate the first of three firewalls. They lock the creature in the lab. But things don’t go as planned and it slips into the ventilation system. Now it’s a race against time to try and destroy the creature before it destroys the crew. And since they don’t know if the creature can withstand the rigors of planetary re-entry, they can’t allow the space station’s orbit to decay and allow the creature to get loose on Earth.
Greg, the title of this film, Life, is both brilliant and misleading. Its brilliance lies in the movie’s portrayal of how humans discover new extraterrestrial life. The misleading aspect of the title, of course, resides in the wake of human dead bodies resulting from the alien’s ruthless nature. The creature has an unyielding drive to live, a drive that stops at nothing to destroy and consume all other life forms in its path. This movie called Life is about a death machine.
This film left me feeling disturbed and dismayed about life in the universe and the doom awaiting our own planet. I haven’t felt this deflated and defeated after seeing a movie since 2014’s Nightcrawler. You may recall that Nightcrawler ends not just with evil triumphing over good, but evil growing stronger throughout the movie and remaining seemingly unstoppable at the end. Life does exactly that, too. Perhaps not coincidentally, actor Jake Gyllenhaal stars in both Nightcrawler and Life. To take on these roles, Gyllenhaal must believe that human life is pretty much doomed.
I saw Life as a combination of 1971’s The Andromeda Strain and 1979’s Alien. In The Andromeda Strain a virus is brought to Earth when a satellite crash lands after being hit by a tiny meteor. And of course Alien is the classic horror-in-outer-space thriller about an alien attacking a crew aboard a spaceship.
What all of these films have in common is man’s unwitting demise due to our innate curiosity. We are reaching out into the unknown vastness of space. Some stories talk about the exciting possibilities. Life, and the others, remind us that “here, be dragons.”
I enjoyed Life for what it was – a horror film set in outer space. But there’s not much new here. The creature grows at an alarming rate. It appears to learn even faster. Somehow, it knows about spacecraft, outerspace living, and how to use sharp objects. It’s all very unbelievable. But, since the point of the film is to play upon our darkest fears, logic is not a necessity.
As a horror film, there is a particular storyline formula for our hero ensemble to follow. There must be peace and levity at the outset, followed by an encounter with an unknown entity. Our heroes must underestimate the danger of the entity, with one or two of the heroes making crucial errors allowing the entity to gain better access to the group. One by one the heroes are killed in gruesome fashion by the entity, until the very end when one lone hero survives. But in Life, the survivor appears to be stranded in space while the evil entity has landed on earth and is about to feast on 7 billion inhabitants. Our heroes have failed in their mission — never a sign of good storytelling, in my opinion.
I must say, I much preferred the ending in the original Alien movie in which Sigourney Weaver outwits and outlasts the alien entity. We’re left frightened but exhilarated that good has defeated evil. I do understand that Life’s dismal ending appears necessary as a set-up for a sequel. Imagine the bloodbath that awaits humanity, and all the heroes who will need to step up to stop the monster and its offspring. Still, as a stand-alone story, Life doesn’t work, as our heroes do not transform and use their transformation to prevail.
As we noted in our review of Get Out – story often gives way to shock value in horror stories. Still, not all stories must end happily. If you look the the classic Planet of the Apes (1968), the story ends with our hero realizing that he was stranded on a future planet Earth where Man had destroyed himself, giving way to the rise of the apes. It is a cautionary tale.
In Life we see the same result. Our hero takes the creature to the planet surface and local fisherman unwittingly open the capsule, apparently unleashing the creature on the Earth’s populace. This, too, is a cautionary tale: Don’t mess with mother nature. If Mars is dead, it’s probably best to leave it alone. As we venture out into space, we must be sure not to bring back anything that might harm us. For me, it was a satisfying ending.
Life is a movie about death, lots of it in fact, both onscreen and inevitably soon to come in big numbers in the future. Don’t get me wrong; this movie is expertly crafted and riveting. Our hero ensemble is simply outmatched by this creature designed as a biological weapon, and as such we have a failed hero’s mission and failed hero’s journey. I left the theater feeling worse than when I entered, which is never a good storytelling effect. Because the movie is so well made, I still have to award it 3 Reels out of 5.
There was heroism in this movie, albeit with failed results. Dr. North locks herself out of the space station while the beast is attached to her, thereby (she thinks) saving her colleagues. Dr. Jordan selflessly volunteers to be jettisoned out in space with the creature, thereby (he thinks) saving Golovkina and the planet Earth from the creature. These failed acts of heroism are noteworthy, but they don’t come with any transformation, mentoring, or positive outcomes. As such I can only award these heroes 2 Hero points out of 5.
I didn’t detect any lasting transformations among our heroic characters. Displays of selflessness do occur, and one could argue they stemmed from transformations in the moment. But good storytelling demands a lasting dispositional change in the protagonists, and we don’t get that here, as most of our heroes die. The alien creature undergoes physical transformation — it gets bigger, stronger, and deadlier. So for that reason, I can award 1 Transformation delta out of 5.
Life isn’t an original movie. We’ve seen this theme before. What it does have is Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal. And that makes it some kind of fun. The creature was pure evil which isn’t unusual in a horror flick. And the ending caught me by surprise, even if it was obvious to my date. I can give it 3 out of 5 Reels.
Our heroes are the spacemen and women. They display the usual elements of heroic behavior including intelligence, strength, and endurance. But not quite enough intelligence – which makes the horror story all the more interesting. I give them just 3 out of 5 Heroes.
And there isn’t a lot of transformation for our heroes. Although the creature undergoes a strong physical transformation. I give it just 2 out of 5 Deltas.