Life Film Review
Life’s a ball – until you meet a murderous, amorphous space alien.
It’s a good thing Hollywood still produces the odd chamber piece. These are the movies in which the action is confined to one space, say the house in Through a Glass Darkly, one of the first chamber pieces on film, or the bunker in 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, or the spaceships in Life and Ridley Scott’s Alien, the film to which director Daniel Espinoza’s latest is clearly indebted. Horror films in this style allow for isolating, confined spaces, invisible enemies and the sheer terror of being unable to escape from your worst nightmares.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays David Jordan, the pilot on an International Space Station, where he and a team of scientists are studying a sample collected from Mars. The rest of the ensemble cast includes Rebecca Ferguson as Miranda North, head of the scientific expedition, Ryan Reynolds in a fitting role as the wisecracking Rory Adams and Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Murakami, an expectant father with his wife waiting for him back home. Things on the ship turn sour after they study the alien sample (dubbed ‘Calvin’ by a high school student back on earth) and Murakami starts jabbing at it with an electric prod. From there it’s a game of cat and mouse as Calvin develops alarmingly quickly, eliminating his captors in a variety of entertaining ways.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Life is its refusal to include false gravity. Like in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, the actors float through the space station as if they were real astronauts. To enhance this effect beyond mere scientific accuracy, Espinoza’s camera floats too, gliding smoothly through the space station and capturing the action in long takes reminiscent of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. The effect enhances the otherworldliness of the picture, cementing it as an effective chamber piece in a positively alien environment through which Calvin is able to navigate expertly. As a single celled organism, Calvin models itself after the first thing it comes into contact with—Murakami’s hand—making it a kind of see-through, tentacled jellyfish with extraordinarily strong grip. A tense scene kicks off the horror when Calvin latches onto Murakami’s hand while he’s stuck in the quarantined chamber, his teammates fretting on the other side of the glass.
Image from teaser-trailer.com
When Life works, it works really well. Tension is handled with perfect pacing and character deaths are creative, bordering on horrifying and unique in the zero gravity setting. Unfortunately, Espinoza, working off the script from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, fails to keep the tone consistent throughout. There are long breaks for ‘character development’ in which Jordan bafflingly begins to read from a children’s book or tell stories about his father, and moments like these come far too late in the story. It’s something that earlier monster pictures like Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing managed to avoid, with the understanding that while you have to give the audience a chance to unclench their fists once or twice, don’t do it in a way that makes them feel as if they’re suddenly watching a different movie.
Stretches of jarring sentimentality aside, Life is a thrilling, claustrophobic horror movie. It conveys the experience of riding a roller coaster that has a few boring bits throughout, but once you get off, you most vividly remember the thrills.
Cover Image from landmarkcinemas.com