Haunted homes have the advantage of being in urban or semi-urban spaces, which means that the prospect of a safe escape, at least, is plausible. In space, when it’s your very spacecraft that’s ‘haunted’, it’s the opposite — where do you go from there? More than 35 years ago, Ridley Scott showed us what happens when you allow a hostile alien life form on your spacecraft in the terrifying, seminal Alien (1979), as have several sequels. Alfonso Cuarón, more recently, depicted the challenge of surviving in space all by oneself with impressive scientific accuracy in Gravity (2013).
Director Daniel Espinosa appears to be channeling (at least) both these movies and directors in Life, a horror-thriller set aboard the International Space Station with realistically executed ‘space walk’ sequences. Since this is 2017, we have adequate representation: crew members include Ariyon Bakare as Hugh, who is British of African descent; Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho, who is Japanese; and two women: Rebecca Ferguson as Dr Miranda North (the film’s Ripley-like senior officer) and Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerina Golovkina — only two are white and male.
Freed of the burden of having to be groundbreaking, Life aims at being one of those unquestionably well-executed films. It succeeds, but not completely.
Wisecracking scientists work with audiences (see: Scott’s The Martian, starring Matt Damon, which grossed $630 million worldwide), which is perhaps why the dominating character early on, Roy Adams, has been played by Ryan Reynolds as a version of his entertainingly profane, post-Deadpool persona.
His ability to quite literally ‘catch’ a probe, as though playing an intergalactic sport, returning from Mars sets the events of the plot in motion. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), on the other hand, is a sombre former army medic who has traumatic memories of Syria (the film is set in an unspecified near future). The best-known male leads are quite literally chalk and cheese.
The Mars probe is carrying soil samples, which Hugh inspects in a quarantined, environment-controlled chamber. In these samples, they discover a unique cellular organism that comes alive when the right conditions are created.
This is the screenplay’s first stipulation that is later sacrificed for convenience when Calvin, as the alien life form is dubbed, rapidly grows in size over a matter of weeks and — shocker of shockers — escapes.
The conveniences then start mounting. Calvin, who resembles a translucent manta ray, grows at incredible speed even in an atmosphere that is built for humans and survives incredibly long in environments that should kill it. The highly educated, highly trained members of the crew, who even hint at having a protocol for what to do if the lifeform is hostile, seem to forget that at key moments, leading to a fairly one-sided cat-and-mouse game between the two.
This, I will admit, is still entertaining to watch, although the alien is also hostile towards the viewer: he starts by killing off the most entertaining and likeable characters and leaves us with the most boring ones by the end.
The chill and thrills are fairly generic and predictable, although I will admit there is one moment that takes you by surprise. But one wants more from film with such a loaded title than just surface-level emotions. Its most profound insight is simply that Calvin isn’t evil but rather is just doing whatever it needs to survive, just like human beings. There’s truth in this musing, but how invested can a viewer be if the very human beings in question just aren’t interesting enough? The showy ending has the unmistakable stench of studio approval that negates its perceived subversive qualities.
It’s almost like they forgot that this story wasn’t terribly unique in the first place.
(The author is a film critic and culture journalist who resides in Mumbai. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at a leading website and has written for a number of publications. In his spare time, he makes music. When free from all of the above, he travels.)