Few things are as frightening as the vast endlessness of space. It’s pitch black, a reminder of our primordial fear of the dark, where mysterious things lurk. Like the deepest ocean, space is incompatible with our natural state of being; find yourself there without a ship and death becomes a certainty—the only question is how long you might last. Life, a science fiction/horror film, should be primed to exploit those fears, yet it fails in almost every respect.
One of Life’s rare success is in the opening minutes, as we are introduced to the crew of the International Space Station. The weightlessness of zero gravity allows the astronauts onboard the station to zoom through its corridors with the balletic grace of birds in flight. Director Daniel Espinosa wears his 2001: A Space Odyssey influence with pride, marveling in the same grace that prompted Kubrick to soundtrack his space flights with a waltz. Like that earlier film, Espinosa stages scenes in which astronauts are differently oriented: some upright, others upside down. With no gravity and being 155 miles above the Earth’s surface, those distinctions become meaningless.
Among the crew are the station’s pilot, Rory Adams (the endlessly wisecracking Ryan Reynolds), Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), the craft’s medical officer, and Dr. Miranda North (Swedish-English actor Rebecca Ferguson), who is responsible for maintaining quarantine. Hiroyuki Sanada, the popular Japanese actor, plays the engineer Sho, whose wife has just given birth back on the planet (never a good sign in a horror film). The movie, set in the present year, occurs as a probe returns from Mars with soil samples. Among the samples is a single amebic organism, a microscopic blob of cells surprisingly similar to life on Earth. Hugh (Ariyon Bakare), an English biologist, is the only person allowed in the ship’s lab, where he experiments with the tiny creature, giving it an accommodating climate and plenty of sugar water. Miranda remarks ominously that “Every cell is all muscle, all brain, all eye.”
Hugh’s interest in the organism, named Calvin by grade school-aged children, becomes obsessive. When a malfunction causes the creature to go into hibernation, he takes the extreme measure of zapping it with electricity to reinvigorate it. And that’s when everything goes wrong.
Calvin, now a jumble of translucent cells resembling a cross between an octopus and a wad of seaweed, grips onto Hugh’s gloves with enough force to crush his hand. Then, in a shamelessly silly move, Calvin somehow grasps a sharp tool to cut its way out of its tank. (Imagine if the little chestburster in Alien had picked up a knife and just started stabbing the crew.) The little monster’s precociousness becomes a sick joke, until it gets hold of one of the crew members and does its ghastly business. The death is stomach churning (quite literally), an initial gross-out in the mold of Alien. Like that movie, Life then tones down the gore to focus on the astronauts and their bid for survival.
The film’s writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, fail miserably at crafting frights beyond the early burst of gore. Horror films are boring and unintentionally hilarious when they feature stupid characters doing stupid things. And so many stupid things are done. Hugh’s infatuation with a swirl of protoplasmic goop leads him to feed Calvin until he becomes a serious threat. Later, Rory enters the lab with the escaped Calvin rather than leaving the creature locked in the secure room, and then tries to blast it repeatedly with a flame thrower even after it’s obviously of no use. Reese and Wernick, who previously wrote Deadpool, also seem to be suffering from the misapprehension that Ryan Reynolds can be funny.
At every turn, the crew of the ISS make unforgivable mistakes that further threaten their survival and needlessly damage the movie’s credibility. People don’t always do rational things, but we expect someone smart enough to be an astronaut to at least be competent. Perhaps most puzzling is how the death trap they are aboard has been designed. Thanks to Youtube and singing astronauts with an affection for David Bowie, millions of people have seen the inside of the International Space Station in great detail. It’s a cluttered, small, and brightly lit space populated by astronauts in shorts and t-shirts. The mammoth space that Life has concocted is drearily lit and anonymous—it’s a miracle the crew hadn’t gone mad and murdered each other in it long before Calvin arrived.
Life is a B-movie cursed with an A-budget and an inflated sense of self-worth. There’s a campy, goofy, horror/sci-fi film hiding in it somewhere, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously, one in which these dumb characters could easily exist. But that film has been strangled by a sheen of faux-respectability. As it stands, Life is dead on arrival.