I’ll give Daniel Espinosa’s new alien thriller “Life” credit for this: it gets off to a slick and thrilling start.
After a few awe-inspiring establishing shots of space and earth, we’re gently guided into the interior of the International Space Station, where we’ll be for the rest of the picture. Through a gracefully choreographed single take shot/scene, the camera glides carefully down the dark corridors, familiarizing us with the all the various nooks and corners of the station. Then we’re taken to the main area and introduced to the crew, who are in the midst of an exciting retrieval mission. An organism has been discovered on Mars and it’s being sent to the station for examination. The crew consists of David Jordan, (Jake Gyllenhaal) Miranda North, (Rebecca Ferguson) Roy Adams, (Ryan Reynolds) Kat, (Olga Dihovichnaya) Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) and Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada).
Following that single take introduction, we learn a little more about each of the crewmembers, some brief background on the mission and the extraterrestrial organism itself, (a fast growing thing that looks like a cross between a jellyfish and the H. P. Lovecraft created Leviathan Clthulu) and the characters get to trade some light banter with one another. But before long the crew pisses off the mysterious creature who then proceeds to wreak havoc. All of that happens within the span of ten or fifteen minutes; the set up is concise, fast paced and engaging, only giving us the bare necessities in terms of exposition.
Unfortunately after that breathless introduction things begin to slowly unravel. When the creature escapes captivity, “Life” turns into a straightforward Sci fi horror/survivalist film -- a second rate pulpy genre piece that combines the fluid, panic inducing visual style of “Gravity” with the gory thrills and “and-then-there-were-fewer” structure of “Alien” without reaching the quality of either of those films.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this simplistic approach, in fact often times with horror the simpler things are the better but “Life” gets to be so clunky and muddled in execution. Jon Ekstrand’s symphonic score is blaring and overwrought, calling more attention to itself than aiding the film’s tension and terror. “Life” constantly suffers from “characters-narrate-obvious-plot-developments-and-events” syndrome and Espinosa quickly loses track of the space station’s geography. Often times it feels like the creature can travel at light speed or literally pass through walls as he slithers from one end of the station to another to conveniently surprise an unsuspecting crewmember. And the action culminates in a big, chaotic and choppily edited climax (gone is the fluid coherence of that opening shot) involving a lot of numbing ship destruction and hastily recited technical mumbo jumbo that causes one’s mind to wander and eyes to glaze over. “Life” sacrifices claustrophobic terror for explosions, floating debris and spectacle.
The characters themselves are, for the most part, brooding and one note. Reynolds’ is the only one who has any sort of personality and that’s just because he resorts to his usual snarky comedic persona. Ferguson, who stole Tom Cruise’s thunder in the most recent “Mission: Impossible,” is wasted and I can’t remember the last time Gyllenhaal was such a nonentity, devoid of any charisma or raw intensity. He looks like he’s half asleep.
Worse than that, “Life” drowns itself in unintentional cheese. Truly awful introspective moments and ham fisted “calm-before-the-storm” back and forths (in a shabby attempt to add dimension to the characters and shove the film from point A to point B) cause the action to come to a screeching halt. Jordan remembers his experience watching The Challenger shuttle explode, with his overall point being: “It’s really hard to watch people die.” Wow…that’s true! At another scene, North randomly remembers her father and how he was the one who got her interested in space and that she misses him. And best of all, Jordan reads the children’s book “Good Night Moon” out loud during a tense, somber moment of uncertainty. You know, as you do. It’s a scene that’s played so sincerely but I couldn’t stop laughing. Ultimately these silly, unaware moments undercut the film’s terror and suspense.
Still, there are some simple, visceral pleasures to be found in “Life.” Whenever the creature scurries around on screen or latches onto someone you can’t help but perk up and giggle maniacally. Ultimately, “Life” may a silly, forgettable “Alien” rip off but it’s never a flat out terrible viewing experience. Unintentional cheese is still delicious and with a brisk pace and hour and forty three minute run time the film never overstays its welcome. Put that ringing endorsement on the DVD case, I guess.