Life is good…except for the dead
The Alien(1979) lookalike film scares enough to entertain
Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.
Email This Story
In space, no one can hear you screa – wait, we did this already back in the 80’s…
This 2017 film by Daniel Espinosa and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Deadpoo – sorry, Ryan Reynolds – has gained a reputation even before its release as an Alien ripoff. I mean, the “trapped in space with a monster” films have been done in a spectacular fashion already, and this didn’t really seem like it was going to change up the formula that much. Regardless, as something that still wasn’t a sequel/prequel/remake/reboot in 2017, I was ready to view it and see just how Alien it was, but more importantly, whether it was scary on its own. And how was it?
Well…take Alien, mash it with Gravity, set it in present day, and on the International Space Station. That’s pretty much Life right there.
Basically, the story is this; six scientists on board the ISS have picked up a probe from Mars, carrying what seems to be the first signs of extraterrestrial life. This life form, nicknamed “Calvin” is a fascinating creature, growing rapidly and more energetic as time goes on. Too energetic, in fact, as a misplaced electric shock brings out its more violent natures. What started out as a cautious investigation of alien life becomes a six vs one survival game in the confines of the International Space Station.
Yeah. Doesn’t sound familiar at all.
To its credit though, the film does distinguish itself enough from other space sci-fi horror films out there. To compare it to its most notable counterpart, Alien, while their premise is incredibly similar, there is a clear difference in their overall setting and tone. While both sci-fi films, Alien focuses more on the “fi”, while Life takes precedence on “sci.” As it’s set in the ISS in the present instead of the Nostromo, its atmosphere feels more grounded and realistic, and that was enough to keep Alien from overlapping with the film on the screen.
What also distinguishes it is its outstanding visual beauty; this is where the film reminds me of Gravity, as its shots of space, the ISS, and the zero gravity conditions on the station no short of breathtaking. It shows how far CGI has come, and the same holds true for Calvin, as I actually believed the scientists were being attacked by this translucent octopus-starfish creature. I especially commend the zero gravity shots, not just for their prettiness but their detail as well, and the opening long take through the ISS is simply stunning.
It only takes around twenty-five minutes until Calvin hits his rebellious period and stuff goes down, but the film makes good use of that time, as it spends enough on each of the six scientists. While their personalities aren’t incredibly deep, they’re still likable in their own way. And they aren’t complete idiots to when handling alien creatures like a certain group of scientists from another sci-fi film, so that’s a plus.
The best part? Whether how original you might take it to be, Life is fun. Its horror is very atmospheric, and its jump scares don’t feel cheap, but earned, as the film proves to be great at raising audience tensions. The claustrophobic setting of the ISS was a genius choice as well. Here, there aren’t any vents or wide halls to run around in; only the tight confines of the very limited rooms inside the station, where a single misstep could spell death in space. Calvin is only the icing in the cake, and his fatalities make for some genuinely creepy deaths. And all in all, it was enough to make it an enjoyable horror film.
But that’s the problem with Life; it does enough, but it never does more. Compare this to another fairly recent original horror film – Don’t Breathe. It had the guise of a home-invasion/trapped in a house with a killer film that has been done several times before. However, it found a way to distinguish itself clearly from the crowd, focusing on noise as a essential factor in survival to drive up the audience’s tension to the maximum. It also established enough character in its limited runtime to make me root for the leads in the end. As a result, it was one of the most enjoyable films of 2016 for me.
Life, however, doesn’t feel like it’s trying to really outshine its counterparts. Maybe the “trapped in space” topic has been done too much, but it still should have tried to find a way to make it completely feel like its own thing. As I said before however, it only does up to an okay standard; it gives the thrills, it gives characters that are likable enough, but it never goes beyond that, and because of it, fails to establish its own identity.
The film tries to touch upon new territory with how it views the alien, Calvin. While most horror films portray its villains as remorseless killing machines, Life takes a more neutral approach on Calvin. It emphasizes that Calvin is just trying to survive, and it’s a course of nature, in a sense. Though that’s going to be great help to the scientists who are about to be eaten by this martian starfish.
But that aspect is not only quickly lost, it’s also rather heavy-handed in its delivery. Instead of giving is such a message in nuanced, implicit ways, the film just has one character say all of it in a few lines, and is never really mentioned again. The film does try to reinforce a neutral view; after all, it’s shown in the beginning that Calvin only grew hostile when provoked. But as the movie progresses, it just becomes more and more of a simply killing machine, and whatever themes the film was trying to have is lost in the screams of the scientists.
Speaking of the scientists, while they are likable, they don’t really go that far either. The actors certainly bring their A-game here, but their backstories aren’t really shown except for when they reminisce and their personalties ultimately end up as one-dimensional. I mean, I was still sad when many were inevitably killed off, but my reactions were less “NOOOOOOO” and more “Oh. Too bad :P.”
And while it is indeed thrilling, it is also rather predictable as to who will die and when. Calvin provided enough of an X-factor to keep it from being quaint, but it still follows many horror tropes, and I wish the film had more unpredictability on its side. This was especially noticeable towards the end, where I could practically call out how the last few minutes of the film were going to flow. It’s not a blatant setup for a sequel, but if you have watched enough horror flicks before, you don’t have to see the screen to see how it’s going to end.
I enjoyed myself with Life. It still brought about the scares and thrills to make it worth the bucks. However, while it was a fun time in the theater, already I find myself looking towards other films in the future instead of dwelling on it. Nothing in it makes me want to watch it a second time or buy it on DVD over other sci-fi horror flicks. I still mildly recommend it, as you’d most likely feel like you haven’t wasted money on it. It’s good; but if it really wanted to put its name alongside Alien, it should have known “good” wasn’t going to cut it.