Life (2017)

Goodnight room. Goodnight moon. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon.

Having essentially raised myself on the likes of Red Dwarf, Alien (1979), the original Star Wars trilogy and the various iterations of Star Trek, I think it’s pretty safe to say that I am, in fact, a massive nerdy nerd. Not even in that trendy, cool way either. I just love me some science fiction, mostly because something about the great nothing hanging over our heads scares the living crap out of me.

Oh, sure, I would love to go into space and all that, but the feeling I get is fairly similar to when you’re out swimming at sea and something brushes up against your leg. You can’t see it, you can’t hide from it – you are in its domain, and no matter what you do, if an enormous shark decided it was time for the human equivalent of sushi (hushi?), then your time’s up buddy. Now apply this to space. Yeah. It’s brown suit time.

So, imagine my delight at seeing the trailer for Life (2017) pop up on the big screen. Everything about it seemed to be perfectly aimed at my scaredy-cat tastes. Human exploration and curiosity coming to grips with an unknown alien lifeform that grows at an incredible rate and appears intelligent? Sign me up!

Directed by Daniel Espinosa and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the creative minds behind Deadpool (2016) and Zombieland (2009) among others), Life follows six multinational crew members aboard the International Space Station. As the film opens, we are swept into the action on board the ship as the crew prepare to intercept a space probe returning from Mars, which might just hold the first example of life beyond Earth.

I’m not sure if it’s the new thing to do, but anybody who has watched the trailer will already know what is going to happen, so there’s little point in trying to hide it. Crew member Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), the specialist chosen to investigate the specimen becomes fascinated with the organism, and begins to stimulate its growth using a mixture of gases and nutrients.

During these early experiments, Quarantine Officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) observes that the creature is, “all muscle, all brain and all eye.” In no time, the creature begins to defend itself against Derry’s experiments and, as anyone who has watched the extended trailer will testify, attacks him in an unusually horrific way. I think the term is fin-gore, but full credit to the sound design on this film. You can feel every moment of agony in that scene, as you will with many other scenes to follow. Considering I knew what was going to happen, these scenes were surprisingly tense – a testament to the pacing and direction by Daniel Espinosa.

Once the creature, named ‘Calvin’ – a psychotic crossbreed of Patrick from Spongebob and the eponymous Flubber – is loose, well, all bets are off. The previously calm and scientific crew members begin to get picked off one by one as the creature grows in strength and power.

For what it’s worth, I really enjoyed Life. While it’s true that the film was essentially a number of other films meshed together, the combination worked to tell a worthy, though somewhat predictable, story. The character performances, in particular, are genuinely great. Particularly Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds (cast, presumably, because of the Deadpool connection) and Jake Gyllenhaal who were all great.

The world built around the main action felt very real to me, with school children from across the world broadcasting interviews with the astronauts orbiting the planet. When you consider the UK’s interaction with Tim Peake over the last few years, this feels like a very likely thing to happen. Likewise, many of the characters – particularly in the first act – acted in a believable and honest way. Unfortunately, when things start to go wrong, many of these characters seem to lose their professionalism and just become standard panicking victims. While I can appreciate that it is a stressful situation, I felt that everyone seemed to give up almost immediately – it was only in the final 20 minutes or so did things start to actually happen again.

The alien creature, Calvin, was a bit of a disappointment for me. While I genuinely loved the early starfish-form, it seemed a bit unnecessary to then give the creature a face. It seemed a touch too far into Ridley Scott territory, when actually a mobile invertebrate that has no issue harvesting your organs via your mouth is far more horrifying.

Towards the end of the film, the creature’s invulnerability became a little frustrating. It’s not that it was an unkillable monster that bothered me, it was that there didn’t feel to be any escalation once everything was established. I would have liked to have seen the final survivors jury rig some sort of weapon to force more conflict, but instead the action defaulted to running around closing doors which got fairly old.

Things got interesting towards the end, but I did feel the film sagged in the middle a little bit. Still, for a film that was essentially a suicidally depressed person misremembering Gravity (2013) and mixing it up with Alien (1979), Life might not be the most fantastic film out there, but was certainly worth watching.

Special shout out to the original soundtrack by Jon Ekstrand (a familiar composer to the director’s work). As mentioned, the sound design and music absolutely helped to build the atmosphere, with ‘A Long Way Back’ providing the incredibly dark and satisfying backing music over the final scene. As one commenter on YouTube put it, “The whole audience gasped when this came on.” Absolutely brilliant.

Yours, A P Tyler

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