Watching Life, you are reminded of a simpler time for movie making. We are reminded of that simpler time where your movie wasn’t required to make $1 Billion or win Best Picture or start a cinematic universe in order to be made. Is there a mind blowing allegory or major insight into the human soul in Life? No. Is there some great character development or well-written dialogue in Life? No. Is this a really well directed film that effectively communicates the horror of discovering a monster in a space station? Yes. And with that accomplishment, Life is a winner of a film.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa, from a script by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese (Zombieland, Deadpool), Life tells the story of a small crew in space who are tasked with collecting soil samples from Mars. These samples were gathered via robotics and are on their way back to earth. The movie starts with a very impressive single shot (think Gravity) where we are introduced to the crew as they “catch” the vessel on its way back from Mars. Inside one of the samples is a single cell organism that starts to grow inside the right atmosphere and, you guessed it, this organism grows into a hostile creature and the crew must stop it.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson serve as our leads, with Ryan Reynolds, Ariyon Bakare, Hiroyuki Sanada and Olga Dihovichnaya making up the rest of the crew. The film does a great job serving as a claustrophobic experience with this crew of six for the entire runtime. The main positive of Life is that Espinosa directs each scene with a sense of dread and we as an audience experience the horror of the situation. Unfortunately, nothing really happens with the characters here.
Each character has one trait. Gyllenhaal has set the record for consecutive days in space because he doesn’t like the violence on Earth. Sanada just watched his son born via Skype and is a family man thinking about beauty of life on Earth. Ferguson is the hardened military captain who has made tough decisions in the past and she will make tough decisions up in space as well. Ryan Reynolds is…well, he’s Ryan Reynolds, bringing both the profanity and the heart that we’ve come to expect from the Deadpool star.
To be as clear as possible, there is nothing going on beneath the surface of Life. Normally in film criticism, we talk about “the text” of the film (what you see on screen) and then the “subtext” of the film (the allegory or symbolism being communicated). Make no mistake, there is no subtext with Life, what you see is what you get, and that is totally fine. There is no major character arcs or deeper message about the human condition here. Instead, we have a really solid, really creepy space thriller/horror film that will leave you squirming in your seat.
Espinosa does an amazing job directing the film. Whether it be the aforementioned long takes or scenes in which our spider-like alien haunts a room, the direction pulls you into the movie and the experience is thrilling. The design of the creature is great, giving us the scares that come with both a spider creature and a snake/squirming creature, it’s horrifying and makes for a great time at the movies.
So does Life set up a franchise or will it be discussed in film theory college courses? No. But that is what is so refreshing about this film, it knows it exactly what it wants to be and it accomplishes it. Yes there are really basic characters and an extremely straightforward story, but with story taking the backseat the creepy experience of a horror movie in space can take center stage. Once you accept the movie for what it is, a simple space thriller, you can buckle in for the ride and have a truly gripping experience at the movies.