by Nathaniel R
Stop me if you've heard this one before: a group of scientists are tasked with bringing samples of life back from outer space. Soon they are trapped in a nightmarish monster movie, as the alien life force picks them off one by one.
Life, the latest monster movie set in space, does a lot of things right despite its familiarity. Let's give credit where it's due. It hired capable involving actors in all the underwritten roles including Jake Gyllenhaal who we'll follow anywhere, even into deep space for a Alien ripoff. It's very handsomely lensed by prestigious cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. The direction by Daniel Espinosa (Child 44, Safe House) makes repeated smart use of the zero gravity setting, with well staged setpieces and even some unexpectedly beautiful compositions; the earliest casualty among the crew prompts the movie's eeriest morbidly pretty image. Apart from one confusing action sequence near the climax, the filmmakers seem to have a complete handle on the material.
So why then, is it unsatisfying?
When does Life go wrong?
Sadly I'd wager it all went wrong in pre-production when no one pulled the plug or demanded that the movie come up with its own distinct identity, or flesh out the character relations. But as for something with greater specificity I'd say that things go very wrong as soon as "Calvin," the monster of this monster movie grows a thing we can definitely recognize as a face. It opens up too to reveal itself as even scarier than expect like the Alien franchises grotesque mini mouths within mouths. It ruins the spell and the specificity. Suddenly he feels like just any alien monster and not like himself.
You see he starts out having his own identity, however amorphous. He is first a single cel and then grows into a rubbery starfish like blob, that moves with charming curiousity within its glass prison. In one interesting moment before all hell breaks looks (as you know it will in this type of picture) the scientist studying him marvels at his multi-functional cels saying that he's "all muscles, all eyes". The line is said in wonderment but still feels like a threat to any moviegoer who has seen any monster movie before.
Even as he grows Calvin's tentacled blob-like qualities, give him a non HR Giger/Alien quality -- there's no hard shell or face (at first) or excretions -- which is tremendously helpful in setting the movie at least slightly apart. One of the crew -- the characters aren't distinct enough to remember who said what to whom -- says he's just an animal like any of them, needing to survive with water and oxygen and food, so its irrational to hate him.
I thought back to this speech afterwards when the movie's most curiously moving image kept coming back to me. In one late action sequence, Gyllenhaal distracts Calvin with a series of lighted heated oxygen sticks as the ship is losing its temperature control and atmosphere making it hard for all of them to breathe. Calvin repeatedly curls himself up into a ball around each one of them until he's sucked it dry. His will to survive propels the movie. From another vantage point, a more original one, he's the protagonist fighting to survive while his crafty food tries to kill him!
Oscar Chances: Nope. It's handsomely mounted but not satisfying enough to stick. Basically it's a very good looking B movie.