The new sci-fi horror mashup Life follows a crew of astronauts aboard the International Space Station as they successfully secure a speeding space probe from Mars that may hold the secret of life forms beyond Earth. After taking a sample from the planet’s soil, the ship’s biologist (Ariyon Bakare) discovers a single-celled organism that he’s able to revive with atmospheric adjustments and the slimy new passenger soon turns into a more complex being before their very eyes. When an experiment goes wrong in the lab one day, the new creature (who comes to be nicknamed Calvin) escapes his containment area and becomes increasingly hostile towards the astronauts on board.
The good news is that everything prior to the title card, say the first 15 minutes or so, is first-rate and includes a one-take tracking shot that expertly captures the crew in the middle of a mission as the camera zips around effortlessly in the zero-gravity environment. The bad news is that subsequent hour or so is poorly scripted, unmemorably acted and worst of all, highly derivative of other space horror films like Alien and Sunshine. From a conceptual standpoint, it feels like a rebuttal to The Martian, which is about one astronaut stranded in space who uses his intelligence and scientific know-how to navigate through his dire situation.
Life inverts this scenario and instead assigns us to a group of scientists with the kind of lackluster decision-making capabilities that have seemed to plague screaming teenagers in slasher movies for years now. Nearly every choice or plan that’s made by any character seems ill-advised and devoid of any common sense, to the degree that they’re not believable as top researchers in their respective fields, much less as reasonably smart people to begin with. This is a movie about the search for intelligent life and it seems that before Calvin enters the space station, there’s none to be found on board among the incompetent crew.
It also doesn’t help that the characters are not very well-established either, as director Daniel Espinosa is clearly in a big hurry to show us his ever-expanding digital monster rather than give us a crew worth rooting for in the first place. That’s a shame since the cast includes charismatic and capable performers like Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson who aren’t able to use their star power to put some life into their one-dimensional roles. The screenwriting duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick eschews any wit and flavor they may have had left from last year’s Deadpool script and instead settles for flat, perfunctory dialogue peppered with technical goobledigook for good measure.
The film doesn’t score many points on the dramatic and science fiction fronts but if you’re expecting a simple, space-set slasher movie, then there is some fun to be had as the crew members are dispatched in creative and often unexpected ways. The visual design for Calvin starts off a bit silly, as he initially flops around the lab like a squishy sponge but he continues to grow into a more sophisticated and menacing foe throughout the story. Aside from some of these horror elements and a promising opening sequence, Life is generally underwhelming and frequently reminds us of how much better it could have been.