Review: Life

Director:  Daniel Espinosa

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson

If there’s an unnecessary element of modern pop cinema that has started to get my goat, it’s the post-credits sting. Marvel movies use these most often, demanding that an already bum-numbed audience shuffle uncomfortably for anything up to a further ten minutes as every single VFX artist’s name gets to crawl up the screen. And almost always the reward isn’t worth the time. But still we wait to see whatever it is so that we can say we saw it, and so that the experience can feel complete, even if these scenes most often leave us feeling anything but sated. It’s a con job (and I’m fairly sure it’s an annoyance to multiplex employees who just want you outta there so they can clear up the mess ASAP).

So now you’re thinking there’s a post-credits sting on Life, the new sci-fi thriller that’s been in UK cinemas for nearly a week at the time of writing. This one kinda swooped in quickly compared to most modern Hollywood movies, which are trailed to death for months on end before their eventual release. From the writers of Deadpool and Zombieland, this little orbital horror yarn has managed to intrigue thanks to it’s relatively swift landing. But the film itself isn’t nearly as sneaky as this suggests, instead wearing it’s influences – and thus its lack of originality – openly on its sleeve. The modesty of the promotion reflects the modest ambitions of the movie, which plays like a Hollywood developer suggesting “what if Gravity met Alien” without anyone particularly developing that idea any further.

The setting is the International Space Station. We’re quickly introduced to its present crew of six, including Ryan Reynolds’ every-man astronaut Rory Adams (essentially the space plumber?), Jake Gyllenhaal’s misanthrope pilot David Jordan and Rebecca Ferguson’s CDC agent Miranda North. Why is a CDC agent aboard the I.S.S.? Well, the current mission – moniker Pilgrim – is to intercept returning samples gathered from Mars. Samples which may (i.e. do) contain specimens of intelligent life.

Biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) starts growing samples in the station’s diminutive lab, and thus we’re introduced to the crew’s latest guest member; a betentacled translucent extra-terrestrial that comes to be named… err… Calvin. But in this compacted space horror movie, it’s not too long before Calvin’s growth spurts and unpredictable responses to stimuli start causing major problems for the astronauts. Dun-dun-derr.

I’m normally happy for a movie to get to the point and a reasonably svelte running time can win me over like nobody’s business, but Life feels a little too impatient to get to the digital grue. As such our human characters are barely sketched in aside from the odd revealing line here or there used to determine a quick template for all future behaviours (templates not always adhered to). Most open to our sympathies are the two fathers-to-be; Hugh, who plays papa to the pet alien everyone else is justly wary of, and Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose wife is giving birth back on Earth. As Miranda points out, all birth is inherently destructive, and so it goes here. These events explode into life-altering (and ending) traumas that ricochet through the movie. Once Life gets rolling it doesn’t let up – which could’ve been to its credit – but there’s a constant sense of bumbling by all involved, both on screen and off, that makes this all feel like a hurried accident rather than a deliberate ride.

With a small slithering entity loose in a tin can, Life couldn’t possibly have avoided comparisons with Alien, but it never once attempts anything smarter or scarier than it’s daddy did before it. It isn’t that the stakes aren’t clear, but the method of delivery just feels clumsy. This manifests in multiple ways, from the clunky dialogue (there’s an aw-jeez mentality here that also evokes Gravity) to the decision to visualise Calvin and all of his actions digitally. In modern sci-fi terms that almost certainly felt like a no-brainer, but the problem with digital blood – still – is that it looks like digital blood. So we’re pulled out of the moment and we don’t believe. A lot of the surrounding CG work here is very good – recalling Gravity in a more flattering manner – but the recognisable unrealities, including Calvin, still act as a sort of barrier. And what is your monster movie if you don’t quite believe in the monster?

Life proceeds to follow template, whittling it’s character set down one by one, making much of the action in the middle of the film feel like process. Time spent. The who’s and how’s offer mild diversions on occasion, but not enough to draw particular comment. Which brings us to the movie’s end and the inevitable threat of further exposure. Life might even have shone here if the tone taken throughout had been more wry or reckless (something these writers have shown themselves capable of), but instead we’re offered something more earnest and, by extension, pedestrian. Again, it’s following the steps. The ending is entirely guessable as it’s happening and as we cut to credits, it’s hard not to immediately reflect on the time spent with Life and come to the question; is that it?

Is that it? Daniel Espinosa’s name appeared in white lettering on black and I felt moved to wait. An ingrained sense of distrust left me assuming that the underwhelming sensation I was experiencing was because, hey, the film wasn’t over yet. There’ll be a post-credits, right? Something more to help justify the time Life had asked of me. What’s more, the propulsive end credits music suggested as much. It says, “We’re headed somewhere…”

But once the title card had repeated itself the credits continued… No immediate post-credits sting. Fine. But maybe there’s one right at the end? After all, this still feels so curiously unfulfilling. I wanted my ‘a-ha’ moment…

But then I wondered why. What for? What, realistically, was I expecting this film to do? Surprise me?

I can’t tell you if there’s a post-credits sting. I left. I realised it didn’t matter to me either way.

Score:  

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