Unpleasant things happen in Life, as they do in life.
But, as this is a sci-fi/horror flick, expect a more intense concentration of bad things to happen in 100 minutes than in your typical 24-hour cycle of garden-variety woes.
From good intentions paving the road to Hell, to a sense of wonder that gives way all too quickly to unrelenting fear and terror, Life abounds in desperation and hopelessness.
But of course, its characters seem to have an endless supply of hope, so that’s got to count for something … we hope.
If you’re expecting something as uplifting as Gravity – given the present-day “realism” of this Earth-orbiting space adventure – just … don’t. That’s not a spoiler, merely managing expectations.
Like the title implies and the trailers tell us, this is about a bunch of astronauts on the International Space Station having a close encounter of the third kind.
They successfully intercept a damaged probe returning from the Red Planet – it’s a high-five moment involving a swaggering Ryan Reynolds in a spacesuit operating a colossal robot arm to make a one-in-a-million catch.
Upon analysing the soil samples on board, they find a solitary single-celled organism. Yay! We are not alone in the universe! But hold that thought.
The thing is dormant, until they put their best effort into reviving it. And then that one cell multiplies faster than rabbits on fertility drugs, and the resulting organism wastes no time in carrying out the whole survival-of-the-fittest biological imperative.
It isn’t just artificial intelligence that will automatically decide that us poor hoomin beans must be destroyed, after all.
Be it in science fiction or real life, any biological organism that has evolved to be more efficient than good ol’ humanity would do the same. It’s not for any “complex” reason like trade routes, profit, or political gain, though sometimes it seems like the film is trying to slip in analogies about humanity’s own predatory tendencies.
Here, the fundamental and unemotional impulse is survival. And as the being strives to survive, all less efficient organisms (read: inferior beings) become prey.
From this description, you would think that Life is Alien on board a space station. Well, you just gave that idiomatic nail a mighty big headache.
Derivative as it is, Life manages to wring some moments of genuine sympathy for certain crew members. And, since there are only six of them, there is enough time to give each one individual moments in which to establish some kind of connection with the viewer.
These moments range from the hackneyed to the slightly fascinating. Hiroyuki Sanada’s character angle, for example, is that he has just become a dad (with his wife video-conferencing from the delivery room down on Earth). Uh … yawn?
Jake Gyllenhaal’s medical officer, on the other hand, is approaching the record for living in space the longest – 437 days, almost tying real-life Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov’s 438. But it’s taking a toll on his body, even while his soul seems somehow at ease being isolated up there on the ISS (yep, he’s not a great people person).
The other characters fall somewhere in between and sadly, a couple of them aren’t around long enough for that to even matter.
But Life does manage to give us a couple of things: a nifty creature design as it goes through its various stages of development (the “Baby Groot” cute phase lasts about one second) until we see it in its highly efficient predatory state; and some rather unusual – not to mention startling – creature attacks.
In the film, the discovery of life outside Earth is greeted with euphoria, both down on Earth as well as on the station. That soon gives way to confusion, fear and then helplessness.
The acting ensemble helps convey these emotions effectively enough, and to show that they’re not just standard monster-movie victims, the characters also show that they too have strong survival instincts.
Unfortunately for more than a few of them, life happens.
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ryan Reynolds, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare