It may not have been the best moment for me to see Life when I did, as it was one of those times when I had reverted to my healthy obsession and non-guilty pleasure for the Alien franchise. I do that regularly, and, granted, the advent of a new trailer for an Alien movie might have something to do with that. On the other hand, my love for all things (err, almost all) Alien was what made me want to see Life in the first place. And I’m pretty sure that the makers of this film were betting on that, as Life more than obviously tries to pay homage to Alien. But does it achieve what it sets out to do? In my view, not entirely.
Two of the things that made Alien iconic were the alien itself – a creature like nothing we had seen before and have seen since, honestly, outside the franchise – and the use of suspense to create the effect of horror as opposed to gore. Oh, there is gore in Alien, and plenty of it, but it is not what defines it. Suspense defines Alien, building up tension, relying on the viewer’s imagination to bring the monster out of the darkness instead of just showing you the horror of it out front. And when you do get to see the monster, it’s enveloped in shadow and it’s way more terrifying than anything you would have been able to imagine on your own, because it was imagined by H.R. Giger for you.
Life does suspense very well in its first part, and it finds an imaginative way of not really showing you the monster while hiding it in plain sight.
The thing is, lots of stuff can go wrong with human beings in space without a hostile alien running around, because space is way far out of our comfort zone, and Life manages to convey that inherent tension of being in space so well. What may feel like a routine operation – using the ISS’s robotic arm to retrieve a probe – to us earthlings preoccupied with whatever important stuff preoccupies us on Earth, turns out to be very risky business involving a life-threatening spacewalk for one of the crewmembers. There is also the added layer of the nature of the mission we’re seeing. Said probe is bringing in soil samples from Mars, which potentially contain the greatest discovery we would have made so far in our history: extraterrestrial life. Even if the characters we see on screen are professionals we trust to handle the situation and even if science tells us there is very little chance of intelligent extraterrestrial life out there and far less as close as Mars, many of us feel a certain trepidation when entertaining the thought of it. And combined with the fact that the atmosphere on the ISS is suspiciously benign, we kind of expect things to go awry at some point, probably soon.
And speaking of things going awry, we expect the trouble to come from the newcomer aboard the ISS – the Mars samples. This is another area where Life does well initially. It hides the monster under the guise of a harmless bunch of Martian cells growing into a harmless-looking Martian jellyfish. The little bugger is so cute it even earns the honor of being given a pet name by Earth schoolchildren. The monster in Alien was never cute and even in dormant egg stage, it was never something to show to schoolchildren. So, in a way, making the alien look harmless at first could be considered an inventive way of not showing the monster. The problem is, 1) it’s hard to buy that the alien lifeform is actually as harmless as it looks given the starry-eyed approach to the event of discovering alien life, therefore rendering the trick of making it look harmless ineffective, and 2) it continues to look like a jellyfish even after it discloses its evil intent. OK, maybe science will tell you that, even if we do find alien life, it’s not going to be very complex. So a blob of Martian goo might make more sense than a monstrous humanoid cockroach, but this is science FICTION in the form of a MOVIE and blobs aren’t really that scary. At least not to me, and not after I’ve seen better.
It’s hard for me to react with horror to the scene where Ryan Reynolds’s character gets attacked by Calvin because the callback to Alien is so obvious and at the same time falls so short of delivering the same punch because it looks too ridiculous to be truly horrific. Life may have set out to make a more realistic version of Alien by giving us a more realistic monster, but the problem is it doesn’t look real. It looks like it’s computer-generated, which it is, therefore it looks fake. The monster in Alien, from its facehugger stage to fully grown Xenomorph, looked real although it was scientifically less probable, and that’s because it was real. The facehugger was an actual prop and the Xenomorph was a guy in a suit, which may sound ridiculous in the real world, but which actually works in the world of the movie. Movies work according to different rules than the real world does, but both need to make us believe that what we’re seeing is real to keep us engaged. When the illusion of reality breaks, that’s when we get disconnected from whatever’s happening. As regular people going about our regular business in the real world, we stop feeling scared of the Xenomorph when we find out it’s just a guy in a suit (well, most of us do). As moviegoers, we can’t help being scared of it because the illusion of reality is more than fulfilled in the make-believe world of the movie. On the other hand, Life did not play by movie rules well enough make us believe. The sets of the ISS and the terror experienced by the characters all look very real, but the threat they face doesn’t, and that’s one huge reason why this movie doesn’t work for me because I can’t take it seriously.
Another area where Life does well enough is the realm of ideas and characters. Jake Gyllenhall’s character David is a jaded marine who has seen the worst that humanity has to offer on Earth and, as a result, he prefers space. You can see in Gyllenhall’s quiet demeanor just how soothing he finds it up there, looking at his home planet from afar. Yet, David is not a complete nihilist. In the end, he sacrifices himself to protect the lives of those he has chosen to desert. Perhaps, deep down, he still believes what his crewmate, Dr. Miranda North, tells him: that Earth is not all war, not all violence and heartbreak.
Scientist Hugh Derry is another character for whom space seems more comfortable than Earth. Hugh is paralyzed from his waist down, so, for him, space is where his disability is less of an issue because everyone floats around to go places instead of walking. Hugh is the one who makes first contact with the alien creature. He is the one waking it up and helping it grow, and we can perceive his personal investment in making this great discovery work, perhaps as an attempt to compensate for the life that he is not able to have on Earth.
Then, there is Quarantine Officer, Dr. Miranda North, who plays her part in keeping the crew safe with grace and responsibility. Miranda makes one the most powerful statements in this film when she says that she feels pure hate for the creature that is trying to kill them. It was a moment of honesty that deserves to be saluted. Yes, they are scientists floating in space, looking for and having just found something as momentous as extraterrestrial life, but they are also human beings whose primary objective is to survive, just like the alien itself. When the game becomes one of life and death, it is only natural to hate that which wants to kill you, even if it is the very object of your scientific wonder, and it was good that one of the characters in this film expressed that idea.
On the other hand, while sitting there, watching our astronaut heroes lose control of their pet alien and gradually lose their lives to it, I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps they should have come better prepared. I have no idea how the ISS actually works, but if the lab itself was the first level of security, why not make it detachable and blow the whole thing out into space, with the alien in it, the way they tried to do later with one of the station’s modules? I don’t know if this is a technologically viable idea, nor should the average viewer come to a film knowing such things, but the viewer shouldn’t be made to feel like something obvious could have been done to save the day and it wasn’t done.
There’s also their attitude of blissful wonder at having the alien organism alive and thriving, which is completely understandable. Yet, again, I felt that they should not have been so surprised when things turned sour. Why have security protocols, protective gloves and air-tight labs if you don’t actually expect adversity to come your particular way instead of entertaining an abstract notion of it? It is not a surprise to viewers that Calvin turns aggressive because we are trained by decades of space horrors and alien conspiracies to expect extraterrestrial life to be unfriendly. So the fact that it takes scientists by surprise comes off as an unsatisfying premise, especially when the threat is not built up effectively.
The end of the film was sadly its biggest disappointment to me, along with Calvin the Martian Jellyfish. It is never explained why the two escape capsules carrying Miranda North, heading for Earth, and David, heading out into space and taking Calvin with him, reversed course. It felt more like a cheap “gotcha!” move on the part of the filmmakers, than like an actually terrifying ending for a satisfying space thriller.
The main problem with Life, to me, is that there is nothing truly original about it. It pretty much paves the way for Alien Covenant to suck and get away with it because at least it rides in the wake of a great ancestor. We have yet to see a successful 21st century homage to Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic. Perhaps filmmakers need to understand that the way to successfully rip off Alien is to do something groundbreaking in itself that would make us forget about Alien and think back to it at the same time through the impact that it would have on the way films of this genre are made.
Livia Miron is a hired writing gun in the IT industry and a creative writer in real life. She is a long-time Star Trek fan, a devout Middle-earther and a recent Star Wars convert. Currently, her passion for writing is driving her deeper and deeper into the mithril-laden mines of Hobbit fan fiction. Livia lives in Romania and is proud of her heritage, but she is also an incurable Anglophile.