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Life is a dumb movie. It has a dumb title. The people in it do dumb things and benefit from dumb luck. It bothers not with basic elements of cinema like plot and characterization. It’s just a generic scenario followed by 80 minutes of action. It’s both a monster movie and a space flick, but it’s neither scary nor imbued with the wonders of the universe. It shouldn’t work, but that’s an opinion borne of intellect, and intellect can’t stand up to a visceral experience. While watching Life, your mind will tell you it’s a terrible movie, but your body—perpetually coiled, tense, and prepared to defend itself from the silly alien onscreen—won’t be able to listen.
It’s refreshing to watch a film with such modest, achievable aims. With stars like Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rebecca Ferguson involved, you expect an epic Hollywood blockbuster. Life isn’t that. The promotional materials implied a tête-à-tête between its two male stars. There is no such thing. This is a B-movie not an epic, more Red Planet (look it up) than Gravity. It only wants to thrill you, not impress you or challenge your worldview. It’s a perfect one-night stand, not a rewarding long-term relationship.
In sticking firmly to its genre, Life uses every cheap movie trick you can think of, and almost all of them work. It opens with the requisite diverse group of astronauts, living like family on a space station. There is Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), the no-nonsense commander; David (Jake Gyllenhaal), a misanthropic doctor about to break the record for most days in space; and Roy (Ryan Reynolds), a wise-ass whose role onboard the movie doesn’t care about enough to tell us. There is also a smart British guy, an Asian, and a Russian. Maybe they are there to imbue the film with the spirit of international collaboration, or maybe the filmmakers really care about diversity. More likely, they just wanted to appeal to the foreign market.
These pleasant, preternaturally charming astronauts have been assigned to examine the first evidence of life outside Earth. In an effective single-take that opens the film, we watch from inside the ship as Roy uses a large mechanical arm to catch a fast-moving vessel carrying a microscopic organism from Mars. It’s a virtuosic sequence that is so playful it forgets to be tense. No worries. Life has thrills to spare.
After its prosaic introduction, Life kicks into gear, propels itself forward, and doesn’t stop until its final, macabre twist. It follows the lead of its monster, a squishy, amorphous blob who grows and adapts so quickly that the humans aboard the ship have little time to talk about what’s happening. They don’t debate what to do, or weigh the implications. The first idea wins, and it’s usually wrong, so the crew gets picked off in increasingly gruesome ways. Life revels in body horror and employs nightmarish scenes of dread in killing off its characters, and it has a helluva time doing it. You root for the humans, of course—trained by evolution, your body can’t help it—but between their demonstrable hubris and the gleeful ingenuity with which they are dispatched, I’m not sure the filmmakers are.
It’s kind of a relief. Contemporary space movies typically come burdened with self-importance these days. The Martian and Interstellar doubled as works of pro-science advocacy, and while that’s a very honorable aim, it has started to feel obligatory. As sci-fi, Life is more interested in the fiction than the science. It doesn’t dwell on the realities of space travel. It plays with its cinematic possibilities, with director Daniel Espinosa using the contrast between the tight confines of the ship and the vastness of space as a cinematic tool to intensify the terror.
Further, Life has little of the reverence for human ingenuity that has characterized recent space films. “Its curiosity outweighs its fear,” one character says early on, as he disastrously misreads the alien’s attempts to reach out and touch him as friendliness. The same sentiment could apply to the humans, who in their eagerness to discover and claim new life, reject common sense and risk bringing about their eventual obsolescence. It’s unclear if the film ever understands this, for it offers little time for pontification, but it is reflected in every frame. Lifeleaves your heart racing, your body rising off your seat, and your mind completely, tragically, and pleasingly inert.
Life opens today at theaters everywhere.