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Life movie review: alien blockbuster loses its course

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“Calvin” is an awful cute name for a tiny alien blob that comes alive and embarks on a murderous rampage; I would have preferred “Norman” or “Hagetha.” In space nobody can hear you scream, so the saying goes, though initially Swedish director Daniel Espinosa’s containment thriller Life – with the aforementioned Calvin as a terrifying extraterrestrial predator, somewhat removed from the little green man chestnut – tantalisingly suggests otherwise.

Early in the piece six astronauts aboard the International Space Station field questions from children back home, beamed in during a live telecast. If the screenwriters (Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, who wrote Deadpool) maintained that live feed when the pandemonium began, kicking off with the eye-bleeding death of a crew member played by Ryan Reynolds, the film could have paired its zero-gravity schlock with commentary around ratings obsession and the 24 hour news cycle: a kind of Network set in space.

SupportBadgeBut soon, like obnoxious youth arriving in the woods in a horror movie, reception conks out and connection to ground control is lost. The plan is for what happens in space camp to stay in space camp, given there are occupational health and safety issues with Calvin: a ravenous squid/snake-type thing that charges up and down corridors like a bat out of hell, putting victims in cobra squeezes and sliding into their mouths to mulch their innards.

There are obvious comparisons to Ridley Scott’s Alien, particularly in the look of the quickly-evolving beast and the director’s lashings of gross-out body horror. Life’s B movie aspirations are more conspicuous, however, and certainly more unashamed – especially as it lurches and squelches forward. Throat-squeezing verisimilitude exhibited early on gives way to a rote genre exercise; nevertheless a tight, twitchy, muscular ride.

The absence of a protagonist means nobody is assured of survival; there’s no certain-to-make-the-sequel Ripley style hero cracking one liners and hogging the best weapons.

In the crew’s floating space lab, chief scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) observes the growth of a tiny monocellular organism sourced from Mars. Calvin might as well yell “feed me!,” given the strange glob-like thing morphs into a phallic shape resembling Audrey II. That human-devouring extraterrestrial plant suits a potted description of Life: it’s Little Shop of Horrors meets Alien meets Piranha in Space (is that a movie yet?) with splashes of visual chutzpah, c/o cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, presenting an at times classy veneer – like a Gravity-lite.

The sardined, soon-to-be-sliced-and-severed characters are an ethically diverse mob: American, British, Russian, Chinese. But they are all very much of the smart-people-making-dumb-decisions ilk. Personality and circumstance-wise there’s not much to tell them apart, although Hugh’s story hits some notes of interest – paralysed from the waist down, he doesn’t need his wheelchair in zero gravity.

There are others, including the aforementioned fluid-drained Reynolds as a wise ass nobody will mourn. Also the prudent Dr Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) and the more emotional, gut-reacting Dr David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal). Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada) has recently become a father, which of course makes him a prime candidate for Calvin’s wrath. The absence of a protagonist means nobody is assured of survival; there’s no certain-to-make-the-sequel Ripley style hero cracking one liners and hogging the best weapons.

Or perhaps that should read “absence of a human protagonist.” By most definitions a protagonist is the character who matters most to the story, which would indicate Calvin’s status as the slimy-faced, CGI-lathered principal lead. Before the shit hits the fan one of the astronauts cries out for the rest of the crew to stop referring to the damn thing by that name, but to no avail. There’ll be a lot more Calvin-calling where that came from, in increasingly panicked breaths as action intensifies.

Human beings assign things names in order to rationalise them, the message appears to be. Perhaps in visual storytelling terms the same can be said of form and bodies: that we need to be presented with things we feel we can reach out and touch (the absence of which made the Final Destination movies and their imperceptible villain so memorable).

This is a point Life goes on to demonstrate, transforming Calvin from something near intangible (a luminous blob under a microscope) to a varmint airlifted in from any number of midnight movies and creature features. When Espinosa introduces ‘Calvin cam’ out of nowhere, apparently under the assumption the audience are hankering for a first-person squiz through the monster’s eyes, it’s clear the film has jumped the shark.

At one point a character on their deathbed expresses some sympathy for Calvin: it doesn’t hate us, he says, but it does need to kill us. Maybe it’s just pissed off they keep calling it that. “Calvin is a totally bad arse name,” said nobody, ever, on earth or in space.  

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5 responses to “Life movie review: alien blockbuster loses its course

  1. Honestly Luke , is there any need to see Life after reading your review ? So many spoilers – Reynold’s character’s early death, how he dies, what the creature looks like, how it devours its victims, etc. Perhaps you should have included the ending too . You berate the film for its resemblances to Alien , yet you bemoan the absence of a Ripley – style leading character. I appreciate the fact that you thought this film inferior . But you really ought not to ruin the experience for those who have yet to see it. Me for example. Peter Bradshaw in the English Guardian is another reviewer (sorry, should I say Critic ?) who has a tendency to exhibit his intellectual smugness and often gives too many things away. I’ve yet to see Life , I was looking forward to the experience . The fact that the screenwriters also wrote Deadpool really attracted me , plus the presence of Reynolds (now I already know his fate , thanks to you ), plus director Spinosa also helmed a great Swedish crime thriller , Easy Money (available to watch for free on SBS On Demand), an intriguing cast ….. Nevertheless I’ll still go to see this film , despite your review . I just wish I hadn’t read it . I think the last thing a reviewer should do is to spoil a potential viewer’s experience. , no matter how inferior you feel the film may be.

  2. Saw it last night and that’s $10 and nearly 2 hours of my life I won’t get back. Just about everything was wrong about this move – gaps in the plot, inconsistencies in logic (i.e. Calvin seems to exist very well in a space (a vacuum) but we were told later in the film it needs oxygen(???). Direction hopeless, dialogue awful, protagonists totally unlikeable. All they seemed to do was go back and forth through electric firewalls and doors ALL THE TIME. The monster can act better than any of the actors in this move – at least it had a personality. The ending was confusing and illogical. Even the alien was a bit ugly at the end but could have been a lot more scary. I really wanted to like this movie but it really is a very poor imitation of the Alien movie concept – Trapped on board with a monster, can’t get off the spaceship, extremely bad decision making leading to everyone dying etc etc. Ho Hum. I’m surprised that a) it was even made in the first place and b) why it didn’t go straight to DVD. Best avoided and wait for the next Alien movie.

  3. This has got to be one of the worst films in what is a very competitive category – crap. A script that could have been written by a ten year old, repetitive boring action which we’ve seen done better by people who can really direct films. Daniel Espinosa’s direction is woeful and looking at his CV it appears in line with his studio quisling career. A cast who keep yelling things at each other until they pause for a moment’s introspection, “Maybe we can cure cancer with it”. What this truly is, is an insight into producer/studio incompetence and their power to get this tosh into the international market place. In fact the script could have been written by the producers and the studios sales department – all of whom should later have been sacked. But they are the majority. A truly excreble piece of rubbish.

  4. I got to say, this movie only got good in the last reel. Predictably. I could list the many things wrong with this film, but it’s late and frankly, I don’t care. None of the relatively good actors are given much of a script to work with. Dialogue is woeful. Exposition uncalled for. lamenting, out of place. None of these people should be in charge of a lawn mower let alone a space station. Making life and death decisions that may potentially harm themselves, the expensive equipment and perhaps life as we know it. At no point does any of these fools question the sensibility of experimenting with reactivating an alien life form, foreign to Earth and humanity. Even once it begins to reanimate, and grow alarmingly fast, no one says, hey, hold up. We know nothing about what this will turn into. Quarantine procedures are woeful. I certainly hope the real ISS is better equipped and with better protocols than whats on display here. Ditto for the crew members. Non of them exhibit the slightest aptitude for living and working in space. No self discipline, no sense of time and place etc. When Jakes character finds out that the 3rd firewall is to abort and crew expendable he is surprised. Really? It would be a part of their manifesto. Should I list more? I am pretty sure there is no place for a paraplegic on the ISS. Maybe I’m wrong. But do astronauts have to be in peak physical and mental condition to go into space? And be able bodied? I am certainly not anti invalid. I am however, anti idiotic. The entire cast were unlikeable. I found I was rooting for the creature. I saw the ending coming at me like a steam engine… and was then I realised I was watching a modern day B movie. Just not a very good one. Why? Because it masqueraded itself as an intelligent sic-fi film. i.e. Alien. And in reality, what we got was akin to a third rate syfi channel stinker. A bust, all the way through.

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