If you’re going to steal, they say, steal from the best. It almost works out for Life, which borrows the fundamentals of its premise from Alien–hostile, shape-changing lifeform let loose in the confines of a spacecraft grows larger and more powerful as it eats its way through the crew–and rides that pony for a good forty-five nerve-jangling minutes before running out of oxygen. Alien‘s setting was an interstellar mining vessel that doubled as a haunted mansion, with long hallways, high vaulted ceilings, and other shadowy spaces where the boogeyman could wait for his prey. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick lose some of those gothic atmospherics by setting their story on board the International Space Station, since it imparts a more sterile, sci-fi feel. Moreover, in what’s arguably a more brazen case of cinematic larceny, director Daniel Espinosa, best-known for the 2012 thriller Safe House, swipes his anti-gravity stylistics from Alfonso Cuarón, opening the film with a single, very long, VFX-heavy take that sends the camera around in gentle swoops from character to floating character as the space station itself tumbles slowly around its axis.
If it’s not an original idea, it’s at least strenuous filmmaking, and it sets a rigorous early pace for a movie that’s almost as aggressive as its titular antagonist–it’s rare that a studio picture aspires to be this mean. Life begins as the six-person ISS crew intercepts a probe returning from Mars, a feat that requires a bit of spacewalk derring-do from hotshot American engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds). The probe contains Martian soil samples from which British exobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is able to isolate a single-celled organism, which he aims to bring back to life. He eventually gets there, fussing with the mix of chemicals in the organism’s environment as Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), representing the Center for Disease Control, looks on warily. Also aboard the ship are medic David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), pilot Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and mission commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya).
The rapidly-growing specimen is eventually named Calvin by a group of American schoolchildren live-chatting with the astronauts from Earth; fitting his hand into flexible gloves that allow him to reach into its isolation tank, a smitten Derry interacts with it as if it’s a new kitten. Derry is delighted by his subject’s progress up until the moment the enlarged, emboldened organism turns on him, wrapping itself around his gloved hand, breaking and mangling the bones. It’s a great scene, highlighted by a ghastly, ghostlike flourish on the part of Calvin, who reaches back into the room by pressing into the now-empty glove, and it sets the rest of the film in motion as the newly ambulatory organism manages to escape quarantine and run loose both inside and outside the space station.
Calvin is pretty well-designed as CG beasties go. It develops first as a sort of cross between a starfish and a jellyfish, then settles into a groove as more of a space squid than anything else. One of the characters describes its physiology as “all muscle, all brain, all eye,” so I was a little disappointed when it later showed up equipped with plate-like shapes on its back that resembled shoulders or wings, and made a point of thrusting a slavering ersatz visage, complete with the suggestion of squinty eyes and teeth, into the face of its victims. The money shots are brightly lit and the CG composites conspicuous, with the result that the creature isn’t really scary at all. The film gets much better mileage from an earlier scene showing a smaller, less recognizably animalistic version of the monster slipping inside its victim and, apparently, gaining bulk and strength by devouring certain of their parts from the inside. It plays like an overture for Grand Guignol to come, but Life primly avoids further gross-outs, declining to explore territory where Carpenter or Cronenberg–heck, even Collet-Serra or Natali–might have ventured.
Life maintains tension for a while, killing off characters one by one as the remaining crew members struggle to isolate Calvin and cut off its air supply, yet as the cast gets smaller and the VFX-driven set-pieces dry up, the film’s momentum grinds to a halt. Though the movie gets a lot of energy early on from the good-natured banter and camaraderie between the crew members, as characters disappear the performances turn mopey. Among the three leads, Reynolds runs out of dopey good humour too soon, while Ferguson, in her role as quarantine specialist, is saddled with the burden of dispensing bad news. Gyllenhaal is identified early on as the real protagonist of the film–in that first, Gravity-esque sequence, it’s his deeply-furrowed brow reflected in the glass as we watch through a window Reynolds’s spacewalker attempt a dangerous manoeuvre–but he’s no Ripley; his sullen medic doesn’t have much to do in the back half, nor is he much fun to watch. It would have made more narrative sense to keep Bakare’s scientist, a paraplegic who’s delighted at his fortune finding himself in a zero-gravity profession, up and about for the final reels.
Indeed, the film’s tedious bummer of a third act is mainly about two final survivors stewing in their misery and fretting about how best to save the blue globe below them from a monstrous fate: Thanks to Calvin, the ISS is running low on fuel and stuck in a decaying orbit. Their fear is the little bugger will ride that vessel all the way down. Life is annoyingly satisfied by the bleakness of its ending (it’s a stark contrast with the triumph of Gravity‘s finale), but the funny thing is, it amounts to garden-variety pessimism. Confronted with the immensity of the cosmos beyond its own domain, humankind manages to screw everything up, because of course it does. The film doesn’t bother to pin its disaster on selfishness, pride, deceit, or venality. Instead, it’s precipitated by nothing more sinister than a group of good people in over their heads, bedevilled by bad luck, bad decisions, and a little more curiosity than is healthy. That’s life and that’s Life, I guess–maybe the movie should have ended with the Sinatra tune. Or just a sad trombone.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Life evolves onto Blu-ray Disc in a typically sharp edition from Columbia Pictures sourced from the production’s 3.2K digital intermediate and letterboxed at 2.39:1. Sony’s transfer peers deeply into the shadows and keeps the highlights at bay; this is mostly a dark, somewhat contrasty picture. DP Seamus McGarvey lit the sets to suggest the soft blue glow of the earth as well as direct external light from the sun as appropriate, augmented by LED lights inside. The subdued colour scheme makes skin tones a bit of a moving target, meaning some of our heroes look like they may be suffering from space sickness; I trust this is a faithful representation of the theatrical experience. The presentation is crisp though maybe not as rich in detail as you’d expect. McGarvey shot with the ARRI Alexa 65, a high-resolution digital camera with imaging characteristics that mimic the shallow-depth-of-field effects often associated with 70mm photography, throwing much of the image out of focus. Diffusion filters were used to soften the hard LED lighting, which further limited the overall sharpness. I didn’t notice much in the way of digital artifacting, and film grain is a non-issue, for better or worse–although a hint of digital noise is visible in darker scenes.
Life is quiet except when it isn’t. The film defaults to a low-key soundscape in which composer Jon Ekstrand’s airy score and the low hums and drones of the space-station environment provide a sound bed for the crew’s conversations. Directionality is emphasized throughout, with dialogue travelling across the front speakers as the roving camera moves through a scene. As tension builds, the low end of the score comes into its own, adding a reliably-sustained rumble to the mix. And once all hell breaks loose, as when an open airlock creates a wind-tunnel effect in one of the ship’s corridors, the DTS-HD MA 7.1-channel mix makes booming, bombastic use of the full 360-degree sound stage. It’s a powerful if standard mix for studio sci-fi.
The slate of HD extra features comprises the usual studio-sponsored assortment of interviews and B-roll highlighting what the filmmakers feel were the most impressive aspects of the production and post, plus some narrative material that didn’t make it into the finished film. The catch-all behind-the-scenes doc is “Claustrophobic Terror: Creating a Thriller in Space” (7 mins.), in which Espinosa says he wanted to make “science reality” rather than “science fiction,” filming a scenario that made some scientific sense and portraying the realistic reactions of characters living through a crisis. Some of the actors offer their own opinions about what makes the movie scary–and how the tightly-designed sets helped them understand what it would feel like to be stuck in a confined space. Screenwriters Wenick and Reese call the ISS “the ultimate playground for an alien being,” and producers David Ellison and Dana Goldberg come on like they’re trying to sell you a car.
More interesting is “Life: In Zero G” (7 mins.), showing how the actors were suspended by wires for much of the shoot in order to simulate the film’s fully zero-gravity environment. For every actor on screen, two stunt-people laboured behind the scenes, using what appears to be a system of ropes and pulleys to move them around the set. Dr. Kevin Fong, described in a chyron as a medical space specialist, weighs in on the veracity of the heavy spacesuits the performers wear, and movement coach Alexandra Reynolds talks about keeping the actors in a zero-gravity frame of mind. Some of the actors, too, discuss the challenges of delivering naturalistic weightless performances.
“Creating Life: The Art and Reality of Calvin” (7 mins.) is mainly about the production’s attempts to incorporate legitimate scientific ideas in the design of the alien creature. Geneticist Adam Rutherford traces Calvin’s petri-dish incarnation to Dictyostelium, a real-world genus of slime mold with individual cells that grow into interesting-looking three-dimensional structures. Co-VFX supervisor Tom Debenham touches on the difficulty of rendering a creature that never looks the same from one scene to the next, and supervising art director explains the “proxy rigs” used to stand in for Calvin on set. Producers Ellison and Goldberg and screenwriters Wenick and Reese put in their two cents on the subject of extraterrestrial life.
A selection of deleted scenes (6 mins. in total) could more accurately be described as barrel-scrapings, considering there’s not much here of interest. A scene in which Jordan (Gyllenhaal) implores Murakami (Sanada) not to give up hope because rescuers are on the way actually goes some way to help explain Murakami’s behaviour later in the film, so it may have been a bad deletion. Another bit involving a discussion about Tang, followed by word from Earth about Calvin’s viral social-media presence, implies that Dr. Derry was under some pressure from his publicity-hungry bosses to increase Calvin’s growth rate. Another four deletions are mere fragments of footage, well under a minute each, three of them containing no dialogue at all. Worth noting: VFX has not touched these scenes, so the zero-g rigs for the performers are visible throughout. Rounding out the supplements are “Astronaut Diaries” (3 mins.), ostensibly transmissions from the ISS to Earth in which three of the astronauts talk briefly about their jobs. Why just three? Who knows? They play like remnants of an unfinished series of promotional webisodes.
A voucher slipped into the case gives you an Ultraviolet download code. Also included on the disc is a red-band trailer for Rough Night alongside green-band trailers for Baby Driver, Passengers (2016), Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, T2: Trainspotting, and the upcoming animated Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars.