Critic Corner: ‘Life’


Courtesy of Sony Pictures

David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Columbia Pictures' LIFE.

While “Life” has obvious influences from various sci-fi thriller predecessors, the performances and direction are enough for it to feel original.

Directed by Swedish director Daniel Espinosa and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson, “Life” tells the story of scientific discovery and experimentation gone awry on the International Space Station (ISS). Right from the start, we get to meet the main members of the crew capturing a space probe returning from a mission on Mars. Astrobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is excited to investigate the planetary samples for potential lifeforms, and is overjoyed to resuscitate a seemingly basic lifeform. The crew share in the excitement and the knowledge of the imminent fame that awaits them on Earth. In this excitement, they decide to name the lifeform “Calvin.”

Hugh’s ambitions get the best of him, however, as his desire for knowledge oversteps his scientific logic, causing a stark behavioral change in Calvin. The lifeform soon disfigures Hugh and escapes into the pipes of the station, pitting the astronauts against the creature. One by one, the crew dwindles, as Calvin grows in size and aggression. “Life” evolves into a battle-royale thriller of natural selection, offering thrills and chills in zero gravity.

As a huge science fiction fan, I tempered my expectations for “Life,” and found it to be tense and fun for the most part. Espinosa’s direction and special effects usage in this film are top-notch, as he does a great job displaying the loneliness and terror of space (think of “Life” as an amalgamation of “Gravity,” “Alien” and “Moon”). With great sets and the uniquely haunting appearance of Calvin, you really feel like an astronaut stranded on the ISS in fear for your life. The acting performances in this film are strong, especially from Gyllenhaal as Dr. David Jordan, and  Bakare as Derry, who both add needed emotion to characters who might otherwise have been bland.

While “Life” certainly has some original elements and scares, it inevitably falls into the pitfalls of predictability. The basic concept of “Life” was popularized nearly 40 years ago with “Alien,” and Ridley Scott’s infamous franchise still kills the space-thriller genre, with “Alien: Covenant” set to debut this May. “Life” has a strong groundwork evident throughout the first half of the film, with pertinent and original ideas about the risks and limitations of human exploration, but it fails in wrapping up the plot in a coherent and original fashion. In fact, the ending is so predictable that it detracted from much of the prior suspense that this film built up, and the studio’s wishes for a franchise were evident. Overall, “Life” offers a taut space thriller with visually pleasing effects, but adds little to the imagination and scope of the sci-fi genre.

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