Daniel Espinosa’s Life may be a cut above the rest of your usual studio sci-fi schlock, but what does that even mean? For the intrigue of this blood-soaked odyssey is diluted through its glossy, magazine-editorial visual palette, a skull-clutchingly persistent score, and a screenplay that values broad characterization over specificity. I can’t tell you anything about the coterie that makes up this Alien-knockoff that isn’t some generalization bluntly emphasized by its lowest common denominator, by-committee screenplay: there’s the handicapped character, a misanthrope with a yo-yo, and Ryan Reynolds as your quote unquote comic relief. The women of the film are largely blank slates that bare little to no tactile effect to Life’s narrative. That’s Life. Isn't that all that needs to be said?
The whys and whences of Life are probably best left unsaid, as our celestial soirée involves a cadre of astronauts tasked with some mission discussed through voiceover but never afforded any particular importance. It all leads to the discovery of a responsive lifeform, a translucent Echinoderm-esque type creature named Calvin*. Things seem to be going well. So clearly things get unwell. Our imbroglio, instigated by our astronauts’ impatient curiosity, begins with Calvin demolishing the hand of one of our cosmonauts, while another is quite literally consumed from the inside out.
As each character is given the greenlight to expire, their deaths don’t inspire grief or dread but rather some equivalent of: what an inconvenient way to die. I won’t deny the primal satisfaction of some of these sequences, which are all intricately staged and designed for maximum discomfort**. But they’re hollow and become increasingly less interesting as the film proceeds with merciful swiftness. Yet it’s the sequences that link them together, expository moments between crew members that really tested my patience. Not only is their dialogue unconvincing, but it reduces even competent performers like Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson to vacant caricatures. Its gory mayhem and Twilight Zone-esque finale can’t salvage the unfortunate and comically disastrous decision to have Gyllenhaal read Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodbye Moon aloud- Life’s pleasures are of a unique brand, indeed.
*We have a cutaway sequence that takes place in Times Square, where a schoolgirl is given the opportunity to name the new lifeform. She goes with Calvin. As in Calvin Coolidge. As in the 30th President of the United States. Kind of interesting concept here, as good ol’ Silent Cal’s policies, your prototypical laissez-faire approach, would instigate the Great Depression and, you know, incalculable hardship and agony. Still, one would’ve hoped for a more modern political commentary, instead going with a name like Ronald or a rhyming equivalent.
**The female journalist sitting next to me during my screening retreated into her notebook during the film’s aforementioned death spree, vocally expelling a “no” when Calvin proceeds to subsume the crew’s lab rat. Bare in mind that that audible “no” would be most clearly echoed throughout the audience, emphasizing the relative thinness of Life’s characterization when a lab rat generates more grief and pity and shock than say, Olga Dihovichnaya, as the crew’s captain, whose slow death involves drowning in the fluids of her spacesuit***.
***What an inconvenient way to die.