Chilling! In space, no one can hear you scream. Although that tagline is associated with Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking space-horror Alien, director Daniel Espinosa’s LIFE delivers an intensely dark thriller that will have you screaming and cringing from the moment life on Mars is discovered. In the same vein as Alien, LIFE is a science-fiction horror that may look like Gravity and might even have the strong orchestral sounds of Interstellar, but provides audiences with an entirely different experience. Borrowing from Alien and Gravity, Sony and Columbia Pictures craft a new space-horror narrative that can sufficiently serve as a standalone film–and be great in that–but also has potential for a sequel or two. Interestingly, there are parallels to Ridley Scott’s Alien beyond the premise; LIFE also features the same number of crew members and other more subtle elements. That being said, LIFE is definitely not a knockoff Alien nor is it trying to be Ridley Scott’s critically claimed film as it does not contain the social commentary on gender, sex, and family. However, imitation is the highest form of flattery, and LIFE pays both homage to the film that likely inspired it but delivers a comprehensive science-fiction horror experience that provides ample twists, turns, and even some emotional connection along the way.
A group comprised of engineers and researchers on board the International Space Station (ISS) are on the brink of one of the most important discoveries in human civilization: life on Mars. Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Sho Murkami (Hiroyuki Sandana), Hugh Derry (Ariyon Baker), and Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) represent several different counties, all working in cooperation on this groundbreaking mission. After the satellite, carrying the Martian sample, is retrieved from spiraling out of control towards the ISS is secured, the group of astronauts are faced with the crisis and task of retrieving it. After a daring retrieval, what should be a joyous discovery–something out of a scientists dreams–soon becomes a living nightmarish game of hide and seek. When the specimen from Mars begins to grow rapidly and become more and more intelligent, it stops at nothing to continue to feed the alien’s insatiable appetite and its goal to find a new home.
Initial impressions of LIFE leave you with noticing just how much like Alien it feels. It’s been nearly forty years since the Ridley Scott cinematic masterpiece, but in that time, no other science-fiction/horror film has come this close to delivering a similar (note: not as high on the cinematic totem pole as its predecessor) experience to that which first terrified audiences in 1979. One of the primary differences between Alien and LIFE is just how much closer to home this horrifying experience occurs. Whereas with the former, the alien encounter takes place hundreds of lightyears away, the latter’s narrative takes place just outside of our atmosphere on the ISS. Not that LIFE feels more intimate than Alien–it doesn’t–but the proximity of this story might add a little something more to the edge that you’re already sitting on as the horrific events unfold on the space station. Pacing is similar to Alien in that LIFE has a slow burn during the first act. To balance this slow burn or to keep audiences from thinking that it’s taking forever for the movie to really get started, the film begins with the “big event” right at the very beginning. The “big event” being the apprehension of the satellite carrying the Martian specimen. But for all it’s similarities, this movie provides a different experience that can certainly stand on its own. LIFE may have been inspired by Alien, but it is certainly not a ripoff.
I’ve been quite critical of the CGI-effects of films in more recent years, but the brilliance of the alien life form in LIFE is the degree to which it feels organic. In the beginning, the life form is little more than a single-celled organism; however, as the plot thickens, the organism begins to take a more chilling form and shape. Eventually, the alien develops a frightening grin and a mysterious-like form. One of the scariest parts of Ridley Scott’s Alien was the degree to which the Xenomorph feels so real that, even in your seat, you could feel the acidic slime and your body likely felt the excruciating pains of that iconic moment when the alien shoots out of the stomach. Part of that can be attributed to the use of pneumatics, animatronics, miniatures, and other practical effects standards. Yes, the alien life form in LIFE is computer-generated, but it also has a very real nature to it. Instead of focussing on how to make the alien as impressive as possible, it would appear that the special effects artists (whose work can be seen in the Transformers movies) focussed more on the small details that ordinarily give a CGI character away. Just like with the brilliant visual effects work in Ex Machina, the visual effects of the alien are flawless.
There is an inherent level of unpredictability in LIFE even after the unavoidable similarities to Alien. LIFE plays around with the final girl trope and the killings have a strategy or method to their madness. Conspicuously missing from the characters of LIFE in a comparison to Alien is a Ripley-like character. Does the film portray strong female characters? Certainly. But LIFE keeps you guessing because the order of the deaths do not follow any predictable pattern. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of being predisposed to the order of the killings to be based up on star billing. Speaking of the characters, effectively managing an ensemble cast is always difficult. So often, some characters in the ensemble get lost or do not receive nearly as much development as the more obvious leaders. Not true with LIFE. True that there is not a large degree of character development all the way around, but each of the characters is treated with equal screen time and emphasis. That is, until death occurs. The excellent handling of this ensemble gives LIFE an extra dynamic that lacks in other ensemble cast films, thus helping this science-fiction horror to stand out from others that are similar in premise or plot. This movie has a “life” of its own.
2017 seems to be shaping up to be a year of excellent movies! We are just about to finish the first quarter of the year, and already there have been some great motion pictures. Furthermore, 2017 seems to be the year of the horror film because so many have made the theatrical distribution circuit. For those who love a good science-fiction thriller, you will not be disappointed with LIFE. Albeit the film may not be able to sustain the magic and horror for the entire runtime, it successfully delivers a terrifying experience for most of the film. If you don’t mind some cringeworthy moments and the dark tone of the film, then this is definitely one to see this weekend.
PS. I saw Power Rangers this week as well, and it was a delightful film! Yeah, it’s a little campy, but that’s to be expected. Definitely the best Power Rangers motion picture. All-in-all, it sufficiently pays homage to the 90s show but provides audiences with a new story. Go-go see it too!
Written by R.L. Terry
Edited by J.M. Wead