We Were Better Off Alone
Aboard the International Space Station, a six person crew intercept a probe returning from Mars. On board are medical officer David Jordan [Gyllenhaal], quarantine officer Miranda North [Ferguson], pilot Rory Adams [Reynolds], systems engineer Sho Murakami [Sanada], biologist Hugh Derry [Bakare] and commander Katerina Golovkina [Dihovichnaya]. The probe is carrying soil samples with potential proof of life beyond Earth. Hugh wastes little time conducting various experiments to effectively resurrect the single celled organism that they find. Before long, the crew are announcing to the world that the creature is alive and growing stably, under strict safety protocols. After several days of inactivity, Hugh attempts to coax a response but is attacked by the creature, which tries to defend itself. From here the alien (dubbed Calvin by the people of Earth) shows remarkable intelligence and uses a tool to escape its cell. From here, the crew attempt to contain the being but are continually thwarted by its problem solving abilities.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way before we go any further. This film owes an exceptional amount to Alien. From the way it’s shot, designed and scripted, Alien heavily influences everything. In truth, for a trapped in space piece with an extraterrestrial life form aggressively hunting the crew, it’s very difficult to improve on Ridley Scott’s masterful film. Having said that, while Life doesn’t do anything new, what it does, it does more than well enough to thrill and entertain for the duration of its runtime. Case in point, after a few beautiful opening shots, the first continuous shot scene taking us through the International Space Station establishes immediate tension and an outline of the character types that we get to know throughout the film. I will be the first to admit, these character types are incredibly cliché. We have the steely commander, the overly consumed biologist, the cocky engineer, the introverted veteran, the new parent and the other one. And yet, as bland as these archetypes are, the individuals cast in each role give commendable enough performances that it almost doesn’t matter; which is an amazing feat.
As decent as the acting may be, it commits what shall forever be called “the Prometheus sin” of introducing us to extremely intelligent and qualified people and making them do remarkably stupid things. I will concede that the script tries to confront this with a confrontational scene about the importance of focus, rest and ensuring every procedure is strictly adhered to but then in the moment forgets all of that. The logic gaps swell and shrink depending on the need to move the action along. For one character the group break protocol and race into a sealed unit after them, whereas another time, they leave a crew member to fend for himself in a pod. We also have the element of self-sacrifice, as several crew members realise they are jeopardising the wellbeing of the others, they martyr themselves for the common good. Bravo. Unfortunately, they only come to this conclusion as a very last resort, meaning they in fact make the situation worse and on several occasions, the following events could have been averted. Having said that, there is the outside possibility this film is much smarter than we initially give it credit for. Throughout the film there are several references to the creatures motivations, discussing the nature of survival. One could argue these lapses of reason are in place to state that even the most altruistic logical mind gives way to the primal instinct of self-preservation.
When it comes to production design, computer generated imagery and visual elements, the film excels. The ship is designed logically, the weightlessness is done reasonably, the technology on display is plausible and, most importantly, Calvin the alien doesn’t look stupid. It is evident that a great deal of research has been done into cephalopods and their insidious, intelligent nature. A vastly superior life form with the ability to adapt, survive and learn. At the end of the day, it’s just an animal but putting ourselves in the position of helpless prey makes for interesting analysis. After all, when it comes to the types of animal we, as a society choose to eat and not to eat, most of the time we show a curious respect for predators – unless they live in the sea; then everything is fair game. But I digress, something I rather liked was the reinforcement that this isn’t a malicious being, it’s just fulfilling its primary function. And yet, as a species and becoming the hunted, Miranda openly confesses, “I feel hate. It’s not logical or scientific but I feel nothing but pure fucking hate for that thing.” Which is an openly relatable mindset for the audience. Helping the visual element, as all terror/suspense/horror films rely on, the sound design and score are on form. Jon Ekstrand provides a typical suspense score but adds a pleasing amount of harmony to ensure the music is more than a senseless cacophony of noise.
In truth, Life is a very inoffensive and functional film that has the sole disability of failing to forge any uniquely new aspects – don’t tell me the last few shots are unique. I will admit the script took the same step I would have and executed it deftly but that doesn’t make up for the formulaic nature of everything that came before it. Worth a watch? Certainly. A long-lasting impactful release? Unfortunately not.
24th March 2017
The Scene To Look Out For:
In order to repair the communication array (which has had its coolant drained), Kat goes out into space and investigates. Checking the coolant port, Calvin latches itself onto her suit but cannot penetrate it. In a move which highlights the script being both smart and dumb, she takes the time to reseal the port, ensuring that Calvin cannot back into the ship. Well done. Then she makes her way back to the airlock to come back inside. Wait? What? No. It has been established that this creature cannot be simply pried off and has the ability to clamp down enough to break bone – what exactly is the plan here? As much as I don’t think mindless sacrifice is required, all she needed to do was to push away from the station and Calvin would have been adrift in space. Instead she messes around with the door and slowly drowns unceremoniously before Calvin gets back in anyway. At that point, a lot of the grace Life had built up was quickly spent.
While everyone performed admirably I can’t say that I particularly liked any of them. Furthermore none of them really stood out as a massively compelling or interesting individual. Granted, each had their own moments to shine, Hugh with the reveal of his disability, David’s self-imposed exile from Earth, there’s lots to work with but none of it is fully explored to a meaningful conclusion.
“Can’t stand what we do to each other down there”
In A Few Words:
“An impressive if by-the-numbers science fiction suspense film that delivers to a commendable level but suffers thanks to the wealth of all-too-similar releases”