Chaos is the Meaning of Life
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
“The existence of life requires destruction.”
This line is said approximately one hour into the 104 minute science fiction horror film Life (directed by Daniel Espinosa) and, while it may not be an accurate description of life, it is a pretty good explanation of Life.
The film takes place mostly on a space station orbiting Mars, where the crew discovers an organism in a sample they took from the planet. While being experimented on, the creature escapes and begins terrorizing the crew.
The first half-hour of the movie is scene setting. First, we meet the six main characters in a clever sequence where the camera seems to float with them around the zero-gravity space station. There is space loving David (Jake Gyllenhaal), cocky space cowboy Rory (Ryan Reynolds), Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems to be the most knowledgeable about their mission, lead scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare), new father Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada), and no-nonsense Ekaterina (Olga Dihovichnaya).
In Space, Everyone Can See an Homage
Once the characters are introduced and the organism (named Calvin by a group of elementary school students in an early sequence where the creature’s existence is announced to Earth) is brought on board, the film turns into a retread of Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien. In both films, an outer-space crew gets picked off on-by-one by a vicious creature they do not understand. This leads to their space station (or ship in Alien) being destroyed and a final struggle in an escape pod.
There is one major difference in the newer film that could have made for a more thought-provoking story. In Alien, the crew is attacked by the creature immediately upon encountering it. It is instantly established as a vicious predator and the crew are largely innocent victims. In Life, it is the crew that first inflicts pain on Calvin. In the early scenes, it appears almost friendly, or at least curious, as Hugh examines and attempts to understand it. However, after warnings from other crew members that Calvin is not his friend, Hugh decides to shock it to see what kind of reaction it causes. This is when Calvin turns violent.
Even then, his first attack is not fatal (he breaks Hugh’s hand). It is not until a crew member tries to retaliate with a flame thrower that Calvin starts killing. Was Calvin born violent? Or is it only lashing out because it feels (rightly) threatened? The screenplay (by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese) never explores these questions.
There is a short conversation about Calvin needing to kill the crew in order to survive (including the quote from Hugh that this piece opened with), but that idea is never actually examined. It is also as introspective as the film gets.
After Calvin escapes and begins to move freely around the ship, the film becomes a standard, and rather boring, monster movie.
So I will focus on the aspect of the film that I enjoyed the most: the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. His camera moves weightlessly through the zero-gravity space station, floating around corners with the characters. This gives a pretty good feel for what it must be like to move around without the constraint of Earth’s gravitational pull. Unfortunately, there are not any action or chase scenes that really take advantage of this skill. But there are still some cool shots where the camera floats in front of a character while Calvin lurks menacingly in the background.
It does not help the film that Calvin, a rapidly growing, squid-like creature, is not interesting to look at. Nor is it given any traits besides “killer.” It just runs around on its tentacles and leaps at the crew members.
Calvin is never even given a weakness; our heroes attack it in random ways and hope something will eventually work. Since the crew members themselves are only given one or two character traits each, that leaves the death scenes as the film’s main attraction. Unfortunately, most of these come off as arbitrary and largely artless (besides the blood bubbles that float out of the mouth of one of Calvin’s victims; that is a nice touch).
The film ends with a decent, downbeat twist which would have been more effective had it been properly set-up by the sequence preceding it. Instead, any explanation for how we ended up the way we did is left out, in favor of a conclusion intended to surprise viewers.
The whole film is like that: shock and gore as a replacement for imagination and thought. To paraphrase Shakespeare, instead of the quiet menace of Alien, Espinosa gives us a lot of “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Should You See It?
Life is not a bad film. It is just an uninspired version of a story we’ve seen done much better before.
If you’re a huge fan of Jake Gyllenhaal or need some outer space horror to tide you over until Alien: Covenant comes out next month, you could certainly do worse than Life.
Otherwise, I suggest giving it a pass and just watching the original again instead.
2 1/2 out of 5
Jake Gyllenhaal as David Jordan
Rebecca Ferguson as Miranda North
Ryan Reynolds as Rory Adams
Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Murakami
Ariyon Bakare as Hugh Derry
Olga Dihovichnaya as Ekaterina Golovkina
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick