First Word: Ridley Scott recently announced that he wants to make six more films in the Alien franchise. Even if you agree the 1979 original is a masterpiece (it is) and are looking forward to Alien: Covenant (I am), six more movies sounds somewhat excessive. Especially since the is-it-or-isn’t-it-an-Alien-movie (it was) Prometheus from 2012 was considered a disappointment (I liked it). This year will be a good gauge of whether audiences are, as Scott suspects, keen for more Alien films. Not only will we see that evergreen franchise’s sixth entry (eighth if you include the Alien V Predator movies) — the third under Scott’s direction — we also have Life. Daniel Espinosa’s film isn’t affiliated at all with Scott’s highly-influential franchise, but it may as well be. In many ways, even at times from scene to scene, Espinosa’s film could pass for a remake of Alien. While certainly not beholden to thieving outright from just Scott’s groundbreaking film — it also liberally adopts elements of Gravity, Event Horizon and The Martian also by Ridley Scott — the projector could alternate reels mid-film and you probably wouldn’t lose your way.
Plot: Life actually opens with a really impressive sequence; a single-take shot (the first of its several nods to Gravity but we’ll allow it) that takes us through the interiors of the International Space Station. As the camera weaves and swoops through its interjoining compartments we’re introduced to its inhabitants. They include Jake Gyllenhaal (soulful), Ryan Reynolds (jokester), Rebecca Ferguson (wise) and all the people of colour who will clearly be the first picked off by an ever-growing alien specimen that has been rescued from a compromised mission to Mars. The excitement doesn’t last long as it soon enough falls into the same narrative beats that you would expect from an Alien-style screenplay by the writers for G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Deadpool. From its basic set-up and narrative trajectory, to even the way it employs certain shocks and plot twists, Scott’s Alien hovers over Life like a corpse. It sits there and gets it stink all over everything. It’s impossible to ignore. 7/10
Characterization: The characters in this film could more accurately be defined as caricatures. Ryan Reynolds was there simply to crack jokes. Jake Gyllenhaal was there to give us a little bit of emotion. Rebecca Ferguson was there so it would seem that at least one of these people could be smart enough to be an astronaut, and the rest are there simply to die. The film treats its characters — scientists and astronauts with IQs no doubt in the MENSA range — like idiots with no more than one single defining trait to separate them from the rest. They detail the most basic concepts to each other, explaining exactly what we’re watching happen on screen. 6/10
Cinematography: Life has some absolutely stunning shots. Director Daniel Espinosa’s vision for this film is beautiful. One place where Alien’s influence isn’t entirely felt is, funny enough, in the design of its actual alien. Unlike Alien, which had the truly out-of-this-world idea to hire H.R. Giger — who was known for his artistic blends of horror, anatomy and phallic imagery — the aliens in Life are a bit more rudimentary in design and impact. It’s at its most alluring both visually and dramatically in its earliest form as a cutesy, fibrous collection of cells nicknamed “Calvin” that sway to and fro with the movement around them. It’s hard not to be disappointed by what Calvin eventually becomes: less shape-shifting and evolving, but rather a typically H.P. Lovecraftian creation limited by imagination. A Speedy Gonzales octopus that can zoom around the ship in seconds and defy any sort of real logic. It eventually grows into a shapeless, giant mass of tentacles where its defining characteristic is a bizarre anthropomorphic face. 7.5/10
Conclusion: Don’t let the big stars, the fancy setting, and (what they will tell you are) state-of-the-art visual effects fool you: Life is a straight-up shlock horror movie. When it’s not referencing earlier, better movies, Life appears to be avoiding saying anything of its own. By adding nothing new to the formula, it fails to make an impression. There’s a reason why certain slasher franchises became successful and others didn’t. It’s why we still talk about Alien and The Thing, but not Creature or Mutant.
Final Score: 6.8/10