A film entitled Life could create certain expectations in the mind of the prospective viewer. One might, reasonably, assume the film would have something to say about the variety, and value, and mysterious wonder of life. One might anticipate an exploration of the ethical ramifications of dealing with newly discovered creatures, or of the remarkable resilience that all life-forms—human and otherwise—demonstrate in following the biological imperative to survive. At our most unreasonably optimistic, we might hope a film entitled Life would have something philosophical to say about the meaning of existence; lowering our expectations, we might feel entitled to expect that a film called Life would be, at bare minimum, lively.
I am here to dissuade you from these (and most other) expectations. Life, from director Daniel Espinosa, has nothing to say, nothing new to offer, and very little in the way of entertainment to provide. It is an instantly forgettable B-movie dressed up—not very convincingly—to look like a serious production. If the film were called Space Squid, that would capture its meager aspirations more accurately, but lead us into a whole new arena of misrepresentation: we would then expect the film to be fun, and we would, in the end, be just as disappointed.
Life is set aboard the International Space Station, where a team of astronauts is rendezvousing with a research probe from the surface of Mars. Aboard the probe is a frozen, dormant, single-cell organism, which shows signs of life once given a little heat and TLC. Schoolchildren back on Earth christen the adorable little blob Calvin, and Calvin begins growing—and demonstrating intelligence—at a rate that should be alarming to anyone who has ever seen a science-fiction movie.
With its dark, somber tone, its claustrophobic environment, and its invulnerable, invasive monster always lurking behind the next airlock, everything about Life is designed to invoke Ridley Scott's Alien. (Even the font on the film's title—shot against a background of stars—is a conscious pastiche the filmmakers would no doubt call an homage.) But this turns out to be a disastrous (if unavoidable) comparison to invite, for nothing in Life works even a fraction as well as it does in Alien.
The astronauts—there are six, though not for long—are all played by fairly good actors (Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ariyon Bakare, Hiroyuki Sansada, Olga Dihovichnaya, and Ryan Reynolds), but simply do not register as individuals: the script gives them traits, but not personalities, and they have too little to do or say that might flesh them out. (There are precious few conversations, let alone conflicts, and nothing close to the interpersonal dynamics that made the crew of the Nostromo feel so real.) Reynolds—reunited with Deadpool screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick—injects some much needed humor into the early portion of the film, and thus becomes the only character about whose fate we care; he also, not coincidentally, features in the film's best (and only surprising) suspense sequence, which comes regrettably early. (Alas—and without giving away any spoilers—both humor and sympathetic characters are in short supply by the film's second half.) Otherwise, only Gyllenhaal's medic David has anything resembling a personality, and even this feels like little more than ill-conceived character window-dressing: in the first half of the film he seems to be suffering from cabin-fever from being in space too long, but even this character-quirk disappears once it's time to dully chase the space squid through zero-gravity corridors.
This absence of authentic characters contributes to the lack of genuine tension in the film as a whole, but it's not the only problem: the suspense/action/horror sequences are also just stunningly unimaginative and horrendously directed. Some of the zero-gravity camerawork is nice—even, Gravity aside, fairly original—but it also worsens some of Espinosa's considerable problems in making a simple sequence of events visually comprehensible. Suspense requires patience to build, and a carefully cultivated awareness of cause-and-effect: too much of Life plays out in a rushed and sloppily edited mess that diffuses any emotional investment. (In several sequences intended to be exciting or suspenseful, I literally could not tell you what happened, let alone why.) There are also logic-problems galore in the screenplay, of the kind designed to manufacture problems: a conveniently failing communications system, a mysterious shortage of fuel aboard ship, and doors that seem ridiculously, punishingly complicated to open. (This is to say nothing of the omnipotent, omniscient, invulnerable Calvin the Space Squid himself, a creature that absolutely beggars belief: he's a single-cell organism who possesses not only the strength of Hercules, but also an apparently comprehensive understanding of mechanical engineering and orbital reentry procedures.) Absent original ideas or emotionally engaging characters, all a film like this has going for it is execution: alas, on this front too, Life fails.
Life isn't unwatchable, but it's kind of dull, and awfully dumb, and nowhere near as engaging as it should be: it feels like a sci-fi horror film made by people with no particular talent for sci-fi horror. (On the rare occasion when an action sequence works, it's only because it's a fair rip-off of a sequence we've seen in better films; most of them, however, don't really work at all.) Its fundamental problems would make Life a disposable mediocrity in any case, but part of the problem, surely, is the film's self-serious tone, and its shallow pretense that it is anything more than a B-movie monster flick. (A late attempt to make the text of Goodnight, Moon into hauntingly evocative poetry is almost laughably awful.) About a last-minute "twist," the less said the better: I'll only comment that it puts the film's poor, incomprehensible editing to cynical and all-too predictable use.
Life aspires to zero-gravity gravitas, but that was the wrong way to go with this silly, soulless material. If the writers of Deadpool had brought just a little of that film's self-aware humor, and leaned fully into constructing a space-squid movie, Life might have fulfilled its only real potential: to be dumb, derivative fun.