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[SXSW Review] ‘Life’ is a By-the-Numbers Sci-Fi Thriller

Life SXSW Review

Much fuss has been made about Daniel Espinosa’s life in the past month or so. When the trailer was released, people criticized it of being an Alien ripoff. Last week, a fan theory that the film is actually a prequel to Sony’s upcoming Venom film was unleashed upon the internet. This was a highly unlikely but admittedly very cool theory. If only that had actually been true, as Life is not Venom prequel, but rather a generic sci-fi horror film that is well-made but does nothing to help itself stand out among the slew of much better sci-fi horror films from previous years. 

In the film, crew members of the International Space Station successfully capture a space probe returning from Mars with a sample inside. Upon studying the sample, they discover that it does contain extraterrestrial life, which is eventually named Calvin by a high school class back on Earth. The crew soon discover that Calvin is growing and becoming more intelligent with every minute that passes. Eventually, Calvin escapes and the members of the crew are left to fend for themselves against it before it can escape to Earth and annihilate its population.

From a technical standpoint the film is a whopping success. From the anti-gravity pre-title card sequence that is filmed in a long take to the CGI creation of Calvin, Life is an astonishing piece of filmmaking. Espinosa is at the top of his game here and has made a sleek and gorgeous film. He and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey create a strong sense of claustrophobia in the hallways, tunnels and vents of the ship. The anti-gravity choreography and set design are equally impressive.

Is Life scary? Not really, but it is very tense for a good portion of its runtime. Once Calvin escapes the film becomes a non-stop game of hide-and-seek between the crew members and Calvin and continues to all the way to the end. Espinosa does squeeze in one or two suspenseful set pieces, but they’re nothing to write home about. The fact that Life is also R-rated is a puzzling one, as the film doesn’t take full advantage of it. This isn’t to say that the film needs to be filled with gore and violence (and make not mistake that there is some blood), but it does scream “missed opportunity.”

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Calvin may be created through the use of CGI, but at least it is believable CGI. Calvin makes a hell of an impression and is one of the best villains the sci-fi genre has seen in some time. Starting out as a microscopic organism, it slowly grows larger and larger, hunting down the crew members of the International Space Station. It gets smarter with each passing second, soaking in information about the crew and the ship to make it a more effective killing machine. It is a fascinating and terrifying creature. Not much is learned about Calvin throughout the course of the film, which makes him all the more frightening, but you almost wish that the film did clue you in a little bit more.

Where Life falters is in its script, which was co-written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (ZombielandDeadpool). It is clear that many other (and better) films inspired Reese and Wernick when writing Life, but they do absolutely nothing to make the film stand out from the crowd. There is a “been there, seen that” vibe that permeates the entire film. Almost nothing in the film surprises you, no matter how much it tries to (and it really tries with one particular plot development in the first act). What does surprise is the film’s final few minutes, which make up the best part of the film. I won’t spoil what happens, but suffice it to say that the film would have been better off if it had started where it ended. If a sequel to Life is ever made, I will be the first in line to see it.

Reese and Wernick don’t do much to make the characters more than two-dimensional stereotypes. Even with the considerable acting talents of Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gylenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson (who made a strong impression in 2015’s Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), these are still paper-thin characters. Reynolds, as the jokester crew member Rory, is stuck playing a role he’s all too familiar. The only thing of note we learn about Gylenhaal is that he’s been up in space longer than any other human (over 400 days), which you better believe has some significance in the third act. All of the characters are likable enough, but once Calvin gets loose they become nothing more than cannon fodder. You don’t particularly care about any of them when they die. All of the performances impress, but they are given little to work with.

Life is not a bad film by any means. It is well-made and has strong performances. There’s just nothing here that you haven’t already seen before in better films like AlienGravitySunshine and even Event Horizon. Considering all of the talent involved, it’s a shame that the film didn’t turn out better. You could do a lot worse at the movies right now, but you’ll struggle to remember any of Life an hour after you’ve seen it.



  • The Drucifer

    This looked like a decent rainy Saturday afternoon flicktoon. I will wait for such a day.

  • Wil McMullen

    I still want to see this movie. I actually looks to be pretty good.

    • Definitely see it. It’s a serviceable and totally average film, IMO. But you may like it more than I did!

      • Wil McMullen

        I saw Life last night and i can honestly say I enjoyed the hell out of it. I can also see why people might be a little disappointment. Still i dug it because it wasnt trying to be anything other than a horror flick about a alien from Mars and the crew had no idea of its nature. I thought the effects were pretty dope and to be honest i didnt expect much when i first learned of this movie (since i was saving myself for Covenant), i didnt expect another major studio to do another angry alien movie and do it right. I just hope people lay to waiste expectations of it being another Alien rip off and let it breathe as it’s own movie about ‘Curtis’ who just wants ‘Life’ at the expense of our own.

  • nowaygetreal

    Limited cast of characters in an isolated setting. Aliens. Space. Good actors – there’s literally no way I won’t enjoy this movie.

  • Rohan

    “even Event Horizon”
    Why does everyone bag on Event Horizon? I love that movie! It is a great blend of Hellraiser and Alien, and there are some parts that are actually scary. Definitely recommend checking it out if you haven’t, plus it has one of the best horror scenes i have seen in a while, “We are leaving”

    • I enjoy Event Horizon, but it’s nowhere near the same quality as Alien, Gravity and Sunshine.

      • gabriel

        Don’t forget Flubber too.

        • Saturn

          I hear that LIFE is actually a prequel to FLUBBER…..

      • Saturn

        Event Horizon really could do with a remake.
        The piss poor cgi has really dated it

        • Oh yeah. All of the anti-gravity stuff is laughably bad it you’re watching it on Blu-Ray.

          • Saturn

            A decent budget remake, with modern “well done” cgi and practical fx could be something pretty special.
            I know there will be those out there who will be all like “no need to remake – it’s a masterpiece! (it’s not)” but I always felt it was a pretty good movie trying to get out, but was perhaps made a little too early for it’s own good.

          • Creepshow

            Event Horizon wasn’t too early at all. It was perfect timing for something creepy to come along, after horror got stale. It made Hell scary again!

          • Creepshow

            You’re supposed to wear your 3D glasses. B-)

        • gabriel

          Yeah, I would love to see Fede Alvarez take on this project and cast Jane Levy. She would look amazing in a space suit.

    • Rick-Taylor

      I love Event Horizon, as well. I feel that the reason it gets bagged on so much is due to the last section of the film. There were a lot of production problems and the original ending was destroyed. There are some tonal shifts that are just irksome, towards the end; along with Sam Neil turning into the possessed bad guy for no good reason.

      • Rohan

        Original ending? Huh, gonna go look that up. I kind of like that Sam Neil ends up going crazy, sort of like The Shining.

        • Rick-Taylor

          If you find the original ending, lemme know. Other than Sam Neil crawling headfirst down a ladder… the rest is supposed to have been destroyed/lost.

          • Rohan

            Damn, that sucks

  • Creepshow

    This sounds like a less goofy Dark Star. (without the beach-ball alien)

  • Shay Lauderdale

    This will be well worth watching at home later on. It looks good actually. I saw the preview yesterday when I went to see Logan with my partner.
    I do love movies like this & Alien/Event Horizon/Sunshine……. Love Love Love Sunshine. My partner just bought me a BR of all the Alien movies in one set……Great Purchase for sure……….We are huge horror/scifi fans. He is in love with X-Men & Storm. I love them as well but I am the uber horror fan…..I grew up watching scary movies with my aunt who was in a wheel chair & my mom. She introduced me to Alfred Hitchcock & classic horror from the 80’s like Freddy Krueger & the Alien movies…….I am getting off topic here, sorry. I am trying to explain the place in my heart for movies like this.
    I wanted to see Get Out yesterday but saw Logan instead to be sweet….The preview for Life did look a whole lot like Alien to me. Like the first one that was more closed in/claustrophobic psychological horror/thriller than more full out action/horror like Aliens was…..

    • Wil McMullen

      Life was pretty good to me, u might enjoy it. The only thing that this movie shares in common with Alien was that they were both in space.

      • jackstark211

        I really liked the movie. I don’t think the Alien comparison is fair either. Like you said, the only they have in common is space and an alien.

      • Shay Lauderdale

        Thanks for letting me know. I would go see it in the theatre if I didn’t mind paying to go all the time. But now with how expensive it is & how most movies are not as good as they used to be or how there is so many movies to choose from that I find myself going less & less……

        • Wil McMullen

          Believe me, I totally understand. The price of admission is astronomical, not to mention the prices at the concession stand. I find myself reserving my spending on this type of outting for movies I ABSOLUTELY must see. Although this year might be record breaking for me since there are quite a few films coming out that I cant wait to see.

          • Shay Lauderdale

            Yes I get you on that….. I have skipped many movies here recently because of the price compared to the worthiness of the film.
            Like I really wanted to the Fantastic Beasts & Doctor Strange in the theatre this past holiday, but am so glad I didn’t…….I just recently saw both movies, & I liked both films. But I didn’t like them both enough to justify a trip to the local theatre……. I’d give them each like 3 stars or a B grade. Both pretty to look at but void of any emotion for me.

  • lostboy408

    Espinosa’s entire career up to this point has been by-the-numbers, sadly.

  • Haris Fadli

    Sunrise? Oh, you mean Sunshine?

    • Bah! Sorry. Chalk it up to late-night writer’s brain. It’s been fixed. Thank you!

  • Nope! That was Kalyn Corrigan.

  • Rick-Taylor

    This review sums up exactly the feeling I got from the trailer. I will still probably see it in theaters, to give it a chance.

  • ArmitageX

    Can’t say I’m shocked. Even the title is boring.

  • Rick-Taylor

    Life is the prequel to Deadpool.

  • I will still check it out. I am a sucker for sci-hi horror/thrillers. I want to see this just for the cast!

  • Harley Mitchel Dirk

    Aw shucks. It sounds like this movie isn’t as good as I hoped it could be and isn’t as bad as I thought it might be. I wasn’t expecting Life to rival Alien or Gravity but I had hoped it would be something akin to this year’s version of The Shallows. I’ll still check it out at any rate. Fingers crossed that I can still have a pretty good time with it.

    • The Shallows is most definitely a better movie than Life.

      • Harley Mitchel Dirk

        Yeah. That was what I gathered from your review here. I was just hoping it might be as good.

      • turk

        Not setting the bar very high there, in my opinion. I just couldn’t get past that farcical and unnatural behavior displayed by the shark in “The Shallows”.

        • Oh that didn’t bother me at all. I think that in most aquatic horror (even Jaws) the shark (or creature in question) doesn’t behave realistically at all. The Shallows was an entertaining B-movie that knew exactly what it was and just rolled with it. I enjoyed it quite a bit

          • turk

            Obviously, as a horror fan, you need some suspension of disbelief. But when it’s an animal, I expect it to at least act *somewhat* naturally. Even the shark in “Jaws”‘ behavior made some sense, with it hanging around a known food source (although whether a shark would consider humans a food source, except in very desperate times, is debatable). But the shark in “The Shallows” readily passed up a massive, and freely accessed, source of food in the whale carcass to constantly expend energy to chase some skinny girl over and over. It acted more like the shark from “Jaws 4”, with some personal grudge despite its own best interests. And the final showdown left me flat, as well. I guess I just couldn’t get past those issues to properly enjoy it. Didn’t hate it. But didn’t understand a lot of the love it got.

      • Harley Mitchel Dirk

        I just finished watching Life and I must say, I kinda liked it. It wasn’t great but pretty good. I’d even say I prefer it to Event Horizon, maybe Sunshine too but I’d need to rewatch Sunshine. Although I will agree that Life doesn’t come together as well as The Shallows.

  • ” Reynolds, as the jokester crew member Rory, is stuck playing a role he’s all too familiar.” – Reynolds is legit a one trick pony.

    • oh_riginal

      I might agree, but I liked him in Buried. That was definitely a film out of his element. Though to be honest, I’ve never been bothered by him like a lot of people are, so I’m a lot more forgiving toward his roles.

  • dsxy

    Slew of sci-fi horrors? Like what exactly, are you including the syfy channel in this comparison? Very few of any quality have been released, while this isn’t a fantastic film it’s a decent watch if you like this type of film.

    I find it highly amusing how much you seem to nitpick at this, then claim the shallows is a much better film.

    Honestly don’t know why i bother to read things in this site, most of it is utter crap. Site needs some new blood.

    • That’s the beauty of opinions sir. Sorry you disagree! At least you know that when you click one of my articles you’ll probably not agree with me.

  • aFriendlyAgenda

    “From a technical standpoint the film is a whopping success.”

    Another all sizzle and no steak affair?
    But theres an audience for that

    And I’m not trying to be aloof by saying that

    I’ve rewatched movies that I enjoyed when I was younger,
    only to realize that they’re not very good, completely derivative, and the only thing I must have like about them was that it had a spaceship and laser guns in it

    I was a easy mark for any ishty Alien knockoff that came out back in the days

  • jayesh

    Spoiler Alert! But need help to understand 1 thing. How did Calvin make the other escape pod go in the other direction. were both of those controlled by Jake Gyllenhal’s Pod??

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