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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.




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