Movie Reviews: Life (2017)

Dir. Daniel Espinosa
Premiered at SXSW March 18, 2017

It was March 2017 and my girlfriend at the time was a senior at USC. Although not a film major, she had decided to take Leonard Maltin’s class in which upcoming movies were screened, followed by a Q&A with someone involved with the production (so I’ve seen the clouds from 1 1/2 sides now). The films and the guests had been really good that semester, ranging from Melanie Lynskey for I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore to Nacho Vigalondo for Colossal. I was dying to get on the guest list for weeks, and we almost didn’t make it to the class I got into, but we got there just in time.

So you can imagine my trepidation when the guest for Life was David Ellison, one of Life’s four co-producers. When the movie was over, nobody said anything bad, but you could just feel the lack of enthusiasm.

Sometime in the immediate future, a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station– jokey Ryan Reynolds, generic Rebecca Ferguson, and Jake Gyllenhaal as a man so antisocial that his refusal to return to Earth has caused his body to atrophy in zero gravity– catch a rogue satellite sprinkled with dust from Mars and begin analyzing it to find signs of life. Within the primordial soil, they discover a single-celled organism that begins growing into a hybrid of gastropod and fungus– every part of its mass capable of functioning as brain, muscle, and stomach at once. As the creature, named Calvin by a children’s contest back on Earth, begins showing what horrors it’s really capable of, the crew’s chief biologist (Ariyon Bakare) defends continued experimentation. Then Calvin takes his first human victim, and the race is on to both eliminate him and survive.

These dual intentions tear Life to shreds. The movie prides itself on its groundedness– with realistic CGI, a general lack of big action setpieces, and characters who are committed to scientific rigor. But the screenplay, by Deadpool’s Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, happily ignores such considerations in order to advance the plot. Over and over, we are told that our unbendingly logical protagonists will sacrifice themselves to protect the Earth; and over and over, they throw this out at the last minute, contorting all reason to ensure beyond any doubt that they– and the menace Calvin– will move on to the next scene.

Additionally, Calvin’s design is one of the worst I’ve ever seen; instead of unnerving deviations from nature like eyeless Alien xenomorphs or mouthless Independence Day aliens, Calvin is persistently amorphous, lacking any dominant feature for the audience to focus on, serving little narrative purpose except originality for its own sake.

This clash between groundedness and aimless originality clashes horribly with characterization as well. Almost every character death is telegraphed by the amount of background they’re given in the first act. The one exception is thrown in there just for shock value. Meanwhile, co-protagonist Jake Gyllenhaal is barely fleshed out, as if the audience’s familiarity with his typical skinny-alienated-misanthrope persona was enough. And in its quest to jerk you around, Life provides a deceptive ending that rivals Troll 2 in its mean-spiritedness if not its production value, followed by an out-of-nowhere use of “Spirit in the Sky” that says “fuck it, we already got the rights to use it in the trailer.”

How Did It Do?
Life grossed $100.5 million against a $58 million budget, probably failing to recoup its marketing. The leadup to the release was accompanied by persistent rumors that it was secretly an origin story picture for the Marvel Comics villain Venom. It’s silly, but I totally understand why people thought that: while it wouldn’t justify Life’s existence, it would at least explain it.

Life is a deeply familiar film in all the wrong ways. If it isn’t copying Alien, it’s copying all the other movies that copied Alien. Brad Jones made comparisons to Event Horizon and Sunshine; I spent most of the movie wishing I was watching Sunshine or perhaps Gravity. Which you should.

Astonishingly, Life received a 67% fresh rating from RottenTomatoes. Of the two films I saw in theaters in 2017 and disliked, both appear to have been unpopular opinions.

Next Time: It Comes At Night