The cold and distant stars have beckoned since before recorded history, and with its first components launched into low Earth orbit in 1998 for almost two decades humanity has had its first tentative but permanent foothold in the heavens in the International Space Station towards which the Pilgrim 7 probe hurtles through the cold on its return from Mars where it has been searching for life.
Directed by Child 44‘s Daniel Espinosa from a script co-written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, previous collaborators on Zombieland, Deadpool and also G I Joe: Retaliation, Jon Ekstrand’s heavy handed soundtrack makes it clear from the opening moments of Life that there is to be no wonder or serenity in the stars, that the Pilgrim 7 brings menace and dread.
In the soil sample there is a single celled organism detected, thick walled to withstand the conditions of the tenuous Martian atmosphere, undifferentiated with aspects of both muscle and neural tissue, and it is cause for a somewhat muted celebration. “We’re looking at the first incontrovertible evidence of life beyond Earth.”
They warm it, they offer it a food source, and it responds, dividing and forming a cooperative organism which grows rapidly and demonstrates simple responses to external stimuli. Xenobiologist Hugh Derry (Doctor Who‘s Ariyon Bakare) leaps to wild, unsupported fantasies of the potential of “Calvin,” and the others try to make him see he is entranced and behaving irresponsibly, but as long as the organism remains in quarantine there should be no danger.
While the determination of microbial biological extraterrestrial life will be a complex and subtle process should it ever occur the film which boasts the name is quite the opposite, a bargain basement straight to SyFy script masquerading as superior science fiction thanks to an A-list cast including Source Code‘s Jake Gyllenhaal as Doctor David Jordan and Self/less‘ Ryan Reynolds as engineer Rory Adams and first class production values.
Opening with an extended tracking shot up and down the corridors of the ISS as the crew float back and forth in free fall, the technical achievement doesn’t distract from the utter insanity or impracticality of moving the station into the path of an object tumbling out of control and travelling at great velocity which would wreck the habitat and kill all on board should there be a collision.
“Remember your training,” they are told as Pilgrim 7 approaches; “We never trained for this,” Jordan responds, which might go some way towards explaining why the crew go through the next hundred minutes behaving with escalating stupidity. Where science fiction is the genre of the capable, Life is a mediocre horror driven by incompetence where urgency is placed ahead of character.
Losing track of how many moments are lifted from Alien, the evolved form of cosmic jellyfish “Calvin” is the carnivorous starfish of the final scenes of Prometheus, its anthropomorphic face both unlikely given its evolution and failing to grant it any personality which might make it more interesting; while paralleling much of Gravity, also set aboard the ISS, the abstract threat of that film was actually more real than the digital tentacles to which the crew react.
A second rate monster movie where the monster isn’t even real which lurches from one attack to the next, the near constant presence of “Calvin” onscreen recalls the tedious overkill of Aliens vs Predator: Requiem where any tension was dissipated by the sheer ubiquity of the title characters which rendered them commonplace, the Predator vision of that film also apparently inspiring the ridiculous “Calvincam” point-of-view shots here.
Grinding to a halt so the surviving members of the crew can utter trite and overdue reflections on life which fail to make them more interesting or sympathetic, Reynolds seems to have boarded the station along with his customary shtick from another film entirely, a decision as ill-judged as the impulsive actions of the crew which are taken without planning or thought of repercussion.