Samuel Brace on the new sci-fi horror Life…
Space is awesome.
And no, that’s not THE reason suggested in the title of this piece, but it was certainly MY reason for initially buying a ticket. But with that being said, it is a statement that should ease us nicely into this sincere endorsement of the thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi horror movie Life. Because space is awesome; full of miraculous wonders and myriad intrigue, and perhaps this writer’s favourite movie setting of all, it therefore, admittedly, affords any film set in that environment an extra point or two come game time.
I went into Life — a simple thriller set aboard the International Space Station — really knowing nothing about it apart from its location, and the fact that space is indeed awesome. I was looking forward to a film that probably wasn’t going to be great but hopefully would be good fun none the less. And I wasn’t disappointed; in fact, I was pleasantly surprised at just how good a movie Life is.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa, Life, which tells the story of a small crew aboard the ISS who have just retrieved the results of a space probe from Mars; a capsule that contains the first example of intelligent life beyond earth. The rest of the film, perceived within the purview of its horror genre, proceeds much like you would expect. Things go wrong, mistakes are made, and now there is a monster aboard the station with no easy escape for the crew. Life isn’t reinventing the wheel here, quite the opposite, and this is perhaps the biggest detractor for the film; it doesn’t do anything new, no reconstruction of genre is taking place here. But it’s this very predictability, or rather, the inevitability of the dire events that enfold, that rack up the tension in this genuinely scary monster movie.
The human characters may be uninteresting, and the film may essentially be Alien in new clothes, but for what the film is, and for what the film does, it succeeds tremendously, rewarding fans of the genre, and those that are in search of a top new movie threat to fear. And this is where we arrive at our prime reason to buy yourself a ticket for Life. There are other reasons of course; the pacing is spot on, the visuals beautiful, the performances rock solid, but it’s the film’s villain that makes the movie, and the main reason to indulge in what this flick has to offer.
The extraterrestrial nemesis of the film is a newly found Martian creature called Calvin, named after US President Calvin Coolidge – or rather the school that bears his name. Calvin starts off as an inquisitive little guy, microscopic and miraculous. But of course, things soon take a turn for the worse, and Calvin starts to grow. Everything that leads up to Calvin’s pursuit of his captors, as mentioned, is pretty formulaic, but what Life has that so many other movies of this ilk do not, is a genuinely scary threat that isn’t diminished by further knowledge, or more revealing glimpses of it.
So many monsters lose their scare-factor once light is shone — literally and figuratively — on just what they are. This isn’t the case with Calvin, in fact, as the film progresses, he only gets scarier and his pursuit of the film’s crew only more dreadful and insidious as the minutes pass by. Calvin is a semi-translucent specimen, a tentacle sporting, demon creature that is every bit as scary as Alien’s Xenomorph – or at least what the creature became after Ridley Scott’s original film.
Often when you get a good glimpse of a film’s movie monster, the CGI used to create such beings starts to reveal itself, the limitations of the technology becoming evident, thus spoiling the creature itself and diminishing the horror of the situation. To be scared by something, we need to believe it to be real; we can’t be brought out of the fiction of events by wonky looking graphics. Luckily for Life, Calvin looks fantastic, and never once do you find yourself thinking “Ugh, that wasn’t done well”. The design team behind the creature deserve a big round of applause here; they were able to not only create a look that holds up in various lighting, but a truly creepy monster that is enough to spook even the bravest of souls.
The movie’s scare-factor however, is absolutely enhanced by some excellent use of lighting, particularly a number of scenes and shots that are flooded in sinister red, adding an extra layer of evil to Calvin’s existence. There is one particular scene towards the end of the film that comes to mind; not only powerful for its importance to the film’s plot, but for its perfect encapsulation in one image of Calvin’s undeniable movie monster credentials. You’ll surely know it when you see it.
Calvin might not be the most unique of monsters, like the film itself, traces of Alien can be found everywhere. But what Life manages to achieve is impressive none the less. Perhaps the complete dearth of genuinely scary modern movie monsters helps to elevate Calvin and his movie, but Life doesn’t exists in a vacuum, it can only be watched within the environment that it exists. And when looking at it from this prospective, Life contains one of modern cinema’s truly great threats – I’d certainly watch Alien vs. Calvin – and my money might just be on the latter, though more feats and evidence are certainly needed.
But what really puts the finishing touches on proceedings (semi-spoilers to follow), what really takes Life, and indeed Calvin, up another rung or two, is the film’s dread inducing and far from happy ending. Whenever a film doesn’t end with sunshine and roses, a level of separation from the pack is most certainly achieved. And with the enjoyable switcheroo of Life’s final moments, revealing that the threat to our crew and to humanity itself is far from over, it really helps to elevate all that has come before it, spreading a level despair that is palpable for all those that have witnessed it.
Life’s closing moments really could have gone in a couple of directions, all based around the fate of the film’s villain, and all would have been not only acceptable but absolutely enjoyable. However, the choice that was made was certainly the right one, earning a quiet round of applause from myself and my film going companion. Good decisions and good film making deserve acknowledgment, and this is just what Life has earned, and this is just what this piece of writing is – an acknowledgement of a job well done.
Life is easily one of the best cinema experiences so far this year, especially if you can look past its unashamed Alien inspiration. And while the film’s characters are barley worth mentioning – played by a top cast of Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson – their lack of… well… character, only helps to serve Calvin, concentrating our attention on him, providing us, the audience, with no distractions from his ghastly zero-g rampage.
So if you are looking for a simple, easy to consume movie to see this weekend, go and check out Life. I think you might get a kick out of it. I certainly did.