In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Life is clearly a complete knockoff of Alien. An exciting, gruesome, intense, scary, and ridiculously entertaining knockoff of Alien. From its setting to its characters to its tone, there is nothing fresh about it … AND THAT’S WHY ITS SO AWESOME.
At a time where just about any movie merits a litany of thinkpieces, a list of reasons why it’s transcendent, progressive, or problematic, it’s nice to watch a movie of which the sole intention is pure entertainment. There are no moral concerns at the heart of Life, and barely a theme to hang your helmet on. It’s just an exercise in genre filmmaking made with a decently big budget and a roster of A-listers. As much as I want to be engaged with the larger considerations of most films I see, it’s nice to just sit back and watch pretty people get killed by a gross, tentacled space creature.
The film begins with an ISS crew tasked with intercepting a Mars probe which contains the first ever piece of alien life. They bring the single-called specimen aboard and marvel in the enormity of what it means. There is life beyond earth! Let’s poke it with things, feed it glucose, and zap it with electrical charges and OH MY GOD ITS GETTING BIGGER AND NOW ITS KILLING PEOPLE.
Dubbed ‘Calvin’ by the students of a lucky elementary school, the creature undergoes a dramatic transformation from playful denizen of a microscope slide, to indifferent squid-beast trying to make its way to earth where it can thrive. Naturally, our crew can’t let that happen, and when attempts to contain Calvin are unfruitful, the new mission is to destroy it. The thing is, Calvin is incredibly smart and durable. The crew is going to have to get crafty if they wish to survive.
Only they aren’t as crafty as one would expect. In many ways, they are actually pretty dumb. But it’s a mixture of said dumbness and NASA’s mission protocol which drives our characters to behave so illogically, yet somehow the film is stronger for it. At no point did my desire to yell at a character undercut the tension or terror of any moment, nor did I ever reach that all too common point where I began to think “well shit, now they’re just asking to die.”
And it’s really, really scary.
If there is one thing that separates this from Alien, it’s the creature design. For a CGI creation, Calvin is stunningly realistic. Its(?) growth pattern makes sense, as does its MO – it’s not a monster wit’s a bloodlust, but rather an emotionless being seeking survival; seeking life, which is the name of the movie. The design has its cake and eats it too by making Calvin a faceless creature, but also giving it a rigid set of features to conjure a more malevolent personality, albeit a nonexistent one.
Director Daniel Espinosa emerges the winner of Life. From the opening tracking shot which effectively and impressively introduces the roster of characters while simultaneously providing us with a necessary geography of the ISS, to the out-of-ship sequences reminiscent of Gravity, it all feels real and looks sharp. Doubly impressive is the way that weightlessness is maintained for the entire film without looking like wire work or green screening. There’s even a paraplegic character with a digitally created lower half. I can’t imagine that it’s easy to do, especially in such a confined space.
Oh and if you absolutely want to try and make a thinkpiece happen, you’ll note that this is a supremely diverse cast. Yes, the dreamy white people get to be on the poster, but that’s just business (which is finally beginning to shift as well). But the way it all plays out on screen offers equal star-power to everyone involved. And then a lot of them die in excellent and gruesome ways. Gah! I love it.
And I will assure you: The rumors are false. This has nothing to do with the Venom symbiote, and there is nothing after the credits.
Life opens in Philly area theaters today.