Two things that don’t normally occur at Castle Blogferatu: reviewing new releases and trashing movies. Then I saw Life. You might say it was, uh, Life-changing.
I gotta be honest here. I had already decided Life was going to suck. I said as much a few weeks ago. Not a helpful attitude. Based on the trailer, I’d already predicted it was going to be a ham-fisted mashup of Alien and The Blob. I was right. Admittedly, however, it wasn’t quite as bad as I assumed it would be.
Not as bad as, say, Alec Gillis’s Harbinger Down, a rip-off so blatant (despite some truly cool practical effects), he could have called it The Thing On A Boat.
Writing about Life in The Guardian back in February, Ben Child noted that “Where JJ Abrams Super 8 and the TV series Stranger Things act as spine-tingling homages to their 70s and 80s influences, Espinosa’s movie (lens flare apart) seems to lack such gorgeously rendered nods to the past. To put it another way, on the basis of the trailer, it appears to have stolen the plot from its predecessor without quite nailing the tone.”Setting aside the facts that a) I hated Super 8 and b) haven’t seen Stranger Things, Child gets it. Much of Life comes off more as slick action movie than science fiction/horror. This creates several problems for the movie. One is, it creates the wrong kind of tension, the beat-the-clock kind that irritates me and keeps me away from action films.
Another problem is I don’t really care all that much about anyone on the crew, including the Doomed Father. What’s a Doomed Father? I’ll tell you. He’s a guy who, early in the movie, gets to see video of his new baby, or even worse, of his wife actually having the baby. The overwhelming majority of the time, this guy is marked for death.
May as well stick him in a red shirt and have him beam down from the Starship Enterprise.
“In Space, No One Can Hear You Steal: Is New Sci-fi Film Life Just An Alien Remake?” Child’s title asks a good question. The answer, to me, is yes.
Clearly the biggest rip-off is Alien, only without the claustrophobia of the Nostromo nor the dread from rarely getting a sustained view of the Xenomorph. Most of the time, Life’s Calvin is fully visible and brightly lit. But Alien is hardly alone. Again, as Child says, these are not “gorgeously rendered nods to the past,” but merely tired, poorly executed do-overs.
The worst of these traces back to The Blob. I recently talked about The Blob in terms of what I call Victim Zero, and mentioned that both Alien and Creepshow recreate The Blob’s discovery scene with fine results. Life doesn’t. If anything, it’s manipulative. The biologist’s (Ariyon Bakare) fawning over the creature leads to the same “poke it with a stick” scene with the same results.
But this manipulation fails. Too many of us have seen the same scene too many times.
Here’s another problem. Much is made of the lifeform’s (named Calvin) startling intelligence. If it’s so smart, why doesn’t it know the biologist is trying to help rather than attack it?
Calvin itself looks like a tentacled Lovecraft creation which would be fine if it stirred the same sense of cosmic dread. If anything, Calvin ends up becoming an annoying but clever brat. True, this brat can (and will) crush and eat you, but it’s a brat nonetheless.
True, the shadows cast by Alien and The Thing are big but not impossible to emerge from. Look at Apollo 18. The creepy-crawly in the space helmet? That’s unnerving. The point is, there are still some shivers to be found. Life doesn’t find them. I don’t want to give anything away for those of you who insist on seeing this, but do yourself a favor and check out First Spaceship On Venus before you do. You’ll see what I mean.
Still, I did say Life wasn’t as bad as I assumed it would be, and it does have a redeeming quality or two. Ryan Reynolds is, well, Ryan Reynolds, so take that for whatever it’s worth. Also, deep down, there is and always will be a special place in my cold, dark heart for Slurpie Movies of any stripe, and Life technically is indeed such a creature.
Finally (as is the case with many a Slurpie Movie) Life has one of those great Saturday afternoon B-movie Sci-Fi Theater endings (which, again, I won’t give away).
The Hollywood Reporter’s Aaron Couch says, “In Life, things don’t turn out quite how its protagonists (and likely, moviegoers) expected.” Unless those moviegoers have seen The Blob, First Spaceship On Venus, Beware! The Blob, Alien, The Thing, Harbinger Down, Apollo 18, Night Of The Creeps, Creepshow, Splinter, Slither, Harbinger Down, Black Mountain Side…
You get the idea.
In fact, I’d argue with a lower budget and less star power (do we really need Reynolds and Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson if we’re not gonna give a crap about any of them?) Life could have worked much better as an affectionate (yet still creepy) nod to the very films it never managed to acknowledge.