If the tagline on the teaser poster for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) was, “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream,” Life would not be inaccurate if it boasted that “In Space. Everyone Can See and Hear Your Derivativeness.” From its opening scene, Life is adamant in its insistence to lift moments from many of the most successful science-fiction movies of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This is a regrettable cross for a film that purports to blend science-fiction and horror, as moments that should be nail-bitingly tense are rarely more than mildly effective due to the notion that we’ve been here before––this is despite some efficiently reliable performances from the whole cast and some effective creature effects.
The six-member crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) capture a probe returning from Mars, upon which is a soil sample that may contain evidence of an extraterrestrial lifeform. Astrobiologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) revives a dormant cell found within the soil that quickly begins to grow into a multi-celled and––this is crucial!–– seemingly docile lifeform. As one may expect from a film which borrows so heavily from Alien, any docility the creature possesses in its early stages will quickly vanish, and it’s not long before it’s grown to be several feet wide, resembling a cross between a box jellyfish and a squid.
During the opening scene, we follow the crew through the narrow passageways of the ISS as they navigate an external grabbing machine into the right position so that it is able to capture the imminently approaching probe. This scene is filmed in one uninterrupted seven-minute shot and concludes with the probe colliding into the station and knocking it slightly askew. If this sounds overly familiar, it’s because director Daniel Espinosa has lifted this scene, almost beat-for-beat, from the opening of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013). From being shot in one continuous take to the collision, the team behind Life can’t seem to not be pleased with how similarly they have accomplished their appropriation of the same scene. This precedent continues as the title screen flashes, (with “L I F E” spread across a screen of stars) and the font, letter placement and backdrop of a starry sky are almost exactly like that of the title screen of Alien.
While I’m sure Espinosa is only trying to pay homage to his favourite science-fiction films, and wishes for Life to be counted among them, such rampant borrowing has the undesired effect of holding the audience at a distance and comes across as plagiaristic. You sit watching Life waiting for the next reference to raise its ugly head instead of losing yourself in the narrative. The six crew members are a diverse, international group, with the mission’s sponsors being described as “American, Russian and Chinese,” which itself seems to be lifted from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007). Like Life, Sunshine also suggests that in the future all space programmes will be global instead of national. Not that this isn’t an admirable hope for the future, but it doesn’t appear to be done out of a desire for diversity so much as it’s being done out of an attempt to replicate what was successful about Sunshine.
The two Americans of the group are Jordan Grey (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose introverted nature contrasts nicely with Rory Adams’ (Ryan Reynolds), who is a more jovial, playful character. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), the station’s quarantine officer and the aforementioned Derry are both British, leaving just Sho Murakami (Sunshine’s Hiroyuki Sanada), the station’s pilot and Elakaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), the station’s commander, who are Japanese and Russian, respectively. Something worthy of praise: while none of these performances are particularly memorable, the actors still come across as believable scientists and astronauts; a failing of many science-fiction movies, including, it must be said: Gravity.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Life comes about midway through the narrative. Grey mentions that watching his fellow crew members die at the hands of this creature reminds him of when he saw the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger, remarking that “It’s hard watching people die.” As he speaks, the rest of the room sits in silence, contemplating the futility of their situation. Unlike many other science-fiction disaster movies, there is a genuine attempt to relate the fictional situation to disasters that have happened in recent history. It’s only a brief scene, but it effectively imparts a sense of impending doom to the preceding narrative, giving the characters who are still alive an awareness of their responsibility to not let history repeat itself.
One may say that this is not a new thing, as disaster movies frequently invoke imagery from disasters from recent history. For example, the constant toppling of skyscrapers seen in the likes of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) or Man of Steel (2013), both directed by Zack Snyder, appropriate imagery from September 11th, 2001 to an almost perverse degree. The difference here is that Life wishes to invoke a recent disaster in its dialogue as a way to prevent the same thing happening to them. Instead of using imagery, it uses dialogue in order to probe a small section of the characters’ respective psyches. It was after this scene that it appeared Espinosa was trying to invoke the same sense of historical authenticity in his use of familiar imagery. By replicating scenes from highly regarded science-fiction films, he may be wishing to suggest that he feels responsible for those films.
The only issue with this assumption, however, is that there is not a hint of subversion to this approach; instead, Espinosa seems content to only make a scrapbook of favourite moments. Unlike Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), which used familiar scenes and imagery from Leone’s own back catalogue in order to deconstruct the mythology of the Spaghetti Western, Life contains no apparent desire to subvert the tropes and clichés of science-fiction cinema from the past fifty years.
Espinosa is more effective at constructing a series of events that lead to the characters’ deaths. Not content with just killing off his victims unceremoniously, he draws out each event, with the creature finding new and gruesome ways of brutally dispatching each member of the crew. In this sense, Life is bizarrely comparable to Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975), which is often considered to be one of the most important Giallo films after Argento’s own Suspiria (1977). Unlike Suspiria, the deaths in Deep Red are effective because they evoke a sense of realism; whether it be someone drowning in scalding bathwater or being hit by a car. Life’s victims are not killed by being devoured or by having acid dripped onto them, but instead in more seemingly domestic ways for life on a space station. For example, while on a spacewalk, the creature wraps itself around the spacesuit of one of the crew members and crushes their coolant tank, causing it to leak into her helmet and for her to slowly drown.
This allows the death scenes to raise the level of threat level from amber to red, if only briefly. Perhaps in the future, when Espinosa no longer feels as in debt to the science-fiction films that came before his, he may be able to create a unique science-fiction/thriller, but first, he must escape from the shadow of the genre’s history. However, if you, like me, saw Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant (2017), the latest movie in the Alien franchise and thought it was disappointing, this may fill your need for a movie that blends science-fiction and horror; just don’t go in expecting greatness.