On dueling forms of simplicity, the broad implications of space discovery, and the meaninglessness of Life
Life Columbia Pictures
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ariyon Bakare, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada and Olga Dihovichnaya
Rated R / 1 hour, 43 minutes / 2.35:1
March 24, 2017
(out of four)
We send people to space to explore, to experiment. To discover. But what Daniel Espinosa's Life suggests is that ... maybe there's not much to see after all. There's nothing left. Espinosa has gone to space and returned, and we can now report his official findings: "Uh, it was kinda like Alien? Only with no aesthetic and no memorable characters and much less stressful."
OK, so there may indeed be much more to find out there; it's just that Espinosa has no interest in exploring - and certainly not in experimenting - and so the undiscovered remains elusive. For him, anyway. Not to mention writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, dazzling us with the same kind of laziness they brought to their stale Deadpool screenplay last year.
From the claustrophobic setting of a single spaceship to the straightforwardness of the title itself, Life strives for the elegant simplicity of the aforementioned Ridley Scott classic. To the extent that, technological advances aside, it seems like it might as well have been released in the early '80s, as if riding a flood of Alien imitations. But its timing is neither here nor there. Simplicity is the one thing this movie has down. Purpose is another matter. That the film keeps teasing a bigger picture - events on board the ship carrying implications of existential, proprietary, even political significance - demonstrates a certain level of awareness, just not a very thorough one. In execution, it reads as either omission or miscalculation. If the latter - taking the film as a deliberate and ruthless subversion of the characters' feelings of ambition and excitement for their extraterrestrial discovery, a ceding of the power of those implications to more urgent primal demands - it fails because it's simply not a good enough thriller on its own. It's too basic, too psychologically detached, to be the visceral nightmare it wants to be.
Re: the former, it comes across as garden-variety half-assedness - a movie that brushes against potent material but has no idea what to do with it; one that fails to follow through not because it finds something better to do but precisely because it doesn't. In Life, the whole world is watching the latest endeavor of an International Space Station crew that believes it is on the cusp of an alien discovery. And not just watching - broadcast on every LED display in Times Square - but actively participating in said discovery, with schoolchildren gathered among the massive NYC crowd to help name the thing. ("Calvin" is what they decide on.) And yet whatever impact the worldwide awareness of the event is meant to have is lost on us.
At one point, after Calvin's bonafides are confirmed, Ryan Reynolds' engineer character correlates the whole event with the birth of a child. "There's gonna be a big custody battle over this one." A jokey line, but a relevant one. Or would be, if the massive importance of such a discovery - and the obvious looming conflict over its potential, its usage, its ownership - were ever explored with anything more than that one jokey line. To the filmmakers, such implications don't seem to matter. Alien had Ian Holm's secrets, Aliens had Paul Reiser's company-man ulterior motives, Life has an apathetic void. The film certainly has no obligation to take those ideas anywhere; but to openly address them, acknowledging their significance, only to show little to no interest in exploring them is an odd choice (to put it charitably), if not a careless one.
If there were something else for the film to latch onto instead, fine. But there's nothing there. Calvin is described as "all muscle, all brain," but the movie is the exact opposite. All skeleton, all flesh, containing nothing. No distinctive quality, no unexpected angle, no interesting character to zoom in on. There's certainly the cast for it - Ryan Reynolds, Rogue Nation standout Rebecca Ferguson, the great character actor Hiroyuki Sanada, and in particular Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the most reliably interesting actors around - both in his performances and his role choices - who's given far too little to work with in this case. Of the small cast, only Ariyon Bakare - as the biologist who essentially brings Calvin to life and is the first to feel its wrath - makes much of an imprint. Everyone else spends most of their time yelling and panicking. One can imagine Reese and Wernick high-fiving each other whenever one of the characters says something coherently science-y, but beyond that they never bother to make sure any of these scientists sound, or act, smart.
That this life form is smarter than the crew is a feature of the premise - his entire being is built to learn, adapt, evolve and respond at a rate far beyond what even the best of Earth's best can keep up with - but the film's creative choices can't do it justice. Calvin is the CGI equivalent of an actor with no screen presence. Upon his initial discovery, it's pretty interesting - like a baby specimen of advanced, almost electronic-looking flora, something that might feel right at home in that creepy garden from Minority Report. But as Calvin grows, its effect wears off. Rather than its lightweight appearance and unassuming qualities sharply contrasting its sinister actions - in the tradition of many unexpectedly dangerous horror menaces before it - it just begins to look silly. In its young, rebellious phase - all elastic energy and violent impulses - it almost looks like it could be one of Baby Groot's cousins.
But that's just one example, among many, of Life's tendency to give us feats of technical accomplishment but miscalculated effect. The film opens with a long, unbroken shot in which the camera floats through the space station as characters dart through its cramped corridors. The shot occurs right in the middle of a dramatic moment, as the crew is attempting to snag a capsule - which contains their prized specimen - that's shooting through space just above them. It's a nifty enough shot, except it doesn't exactly work in context. If this were an introductory scene, in which Espinosa were gracefully introducing us to the setting, the characters, the world we're getting ready to inhabit - think the extended opening of Boogie Nights - then it might have worked, and wouldn't have had to worry about actual story beats. Instead, the scene has a specific narrative objective, so the camerawork choice actively undercuts the dramatic stakes. It doesn't feel like the best way for Espinosa to stage this event, but simply an excuse to pull off an impressive shot that would have been more meaningfully deployed in completely different circumstances.
As I've said even recently, there's something encouraging about a simple, well-constructed thriller, particularly because it's such an undervalued form these days. A film like Life is discouraging for the same reason. It's nothing if not competently made, but it certainly doesn't serve much purpose. That's basically Espinosa's lane. He's a fine craftsman who makes films that are more or less OK but aren't particularly smart and aren't particularly original. Movies like his are the reason film critics (myself included) have overused vague adjectives like "uninspired." For all its surface merits, Life is merely a passable imitation of itself.