I’m in two minds about Life. On the one hand I am ALWAYS in favour of an Alien rip off. I don’t care how many years after it came out (in this case a generatinal 38 years) or how cheap looking your movie turns out, if you are going to supply my senses with a creepy outer space monster movie then I am all in. On the other hand, something bothers me about this version called Life. Is it the incredibly serious tone? Or is it the alien itself which I have a lot of problems with. I’ll get back to that…
So Life is set at the International Space Station where a group of rag tag scientists are trying to grab hold of a passing satellite which contains a sample from Mars which may in fact be LIFE!! For reasons I can’t understand, director Daniel Espinosa seems to think that we are living in a post Gravity world. So the opening scene is done in one take with lots of deep space and sudden excitement as Ryan Reynolds tries to grab the satellite. Now no one is denying that Gravity wasn’t a great film because it clearly was, but surely Life should at least try to march to the beat of its own drum. Presented here you have a damn fine cast of actors in essentially a B movie, and stylistically it is trying to rip off something that is totally unique. Yeah alright I know I was just saying go film makers! Rip off the unique Alien all you like! But Alien felt like l, and indeed was, the start of a whole new genre. Gravity was a one off. There’s no point in trying to copy it. Also this approach just adds to the overly serious tone of Life, a seriousness which really undermines it’s own story.
Hey, I am all for serious horror, and no one can deny that the tone of Alien is also very straight. But where Alien felt refreshing being a trashy B movie but with real characters in a real universe, Life, by going the Gravity approach, just feels a bit po faced. Gravity at least had George Clooney charming banter to lighten the load. Life has the always likable, though small of facial features, Ryan Reynolds, but he doesn’t provide enough levity mainly due to story developments. Instead we have a script which although, well written and admirable in some ways, has characters stopping what they are doing (usually trying to trap/not be eaten by the alien) to philosophise about their existence in the universe or life in general. It’s great to have some depth to the characters but at the expense of the suspense? I think not. Also whenever they start having these monologues it reveals the mechanics of the script -as if the need for deeper character was an afterthought – which just makes it feel clunky.
Beyond this though the film is beautifully made. The sets are claustrophobic and help add to the desperate nature of our heroes plight. The direction, apart from the desire to Gravity-fy everything, is tight and each scene involving the alien had a genuine menace and a well presented sense of the stakes at hand… well at least it would if the alien itself wasn’t so completely shite.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the alien is badly done, far far from it. The visual effects team have done a marvelous job with the monster’s constantly evolving translucent body and watery tendrils. But the creature feels overly designed to the hilt. It has so much going on that you can almost see the various stages it went through before reaching this beast. It feels like something made by committee, the result of too many ideas rather than one single vision like H R Ginger’s. It may seem unfair to compare it to that masterpiece but then if you’re making an Alien rip off, homage, whatever, then that’s what’s gonna happen I’m afraid. The monster here for all it’s cleverness just doesn’t have a very strong or scary image, and this undermines the whole of Life.
Maybe I’m being too hard. Life is a technically very accomplished movie, especially for its budget. It’s nicely directed and the cast are uniformly great (it’s always good to see Jake Gyllenhaal embrace his love for genre). But ultimately it’s hard to get too engaged when the main threat looks like a cross between a jellyfish and some semen floating in a bathtub.