Life is a movie that can’t help but feel familiar, but it’s the kind of familiar that audiences generally don’t mind. It’s familiar by way of its sub-genre, and since we want a bit of alien deathtrap once in a while, we let it slide. People trapped on a spaceship or space station with an unknown alien killing machine only leaves so much room for originality, and little of that alters the overall plot.
Still, there is eventually a fine line between creepy frights and goofball antics, and Life bounces from one side of that line to the other, almost on a minute-by-minute basis, once we find our microscopic alien.
A crew of astronauts on the International Space Station prepares to retrieve some sort of probe that collected samples from Mars, and once they get said samples on board they find a single-celled organism that they manage to bring back to life. Celebrations ensue, and it’s no wonder, but then the thing starts growing at a furious pace.
The film tries like hell to give some depth to our astronauts. It doesn’t even do a bad job of it exactly, but it’s so obviously trying so hard that it becomes rather tedious. Thus, we get a window into the possibility of caring what happens to them, which helps deliver the tone when they all start getting kicked off by the supremely weird, alien-jellyfish monster.
If a trip through claustrophobic scares is your thing, the movie has some moments that aren’t bad, but if checking your brain at the door can get in your way, the movie falls apart, repeatedly. If not for the charismatic abilities of the cast, it would be hard for this to stay out of the realm of genre-mockery, which means that even at its full potential it doesn’t have a lot of power.
Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal can keep an audience watching almost anything, and Gyllenhaal’s quirk as the astronaut who isn’t especially interested in returning to Earth gives the film some purchase when it comes to emotional reach, but they can’t overcome the awkward goofiness of the monster in question, or the strange twists the film makes, seemingly on a dare. Hiroyuki Sanada might have had the best chance of keeping things moving, if he’d had a bit more time as a focus, because he has long been able to pull in viewers just by thinking about an emotional play.
It’s a movie that is best when the alien isn’t even around, because we can focus on the insanity of a situation that simply can’t be dealt with, and aren’t exposed to the nonsensical explanations of an alien that is, at its core, both laughable magical and nothing more than a swirling black hat. At one point, one of the astronauts asks, “How smart is this thing?” and it is a line that someone should have known better than to leave in the script, because the answer is, “Preposterously smart.” Attempting to run headlong past thought and reason, the film makes a big show of talking up the “animal” of the alien, who is, “just trying to survive/eat/live,” and it aims to have that so thoroughly filling your mind that you just roll with whatever the alien does. Obviously, so the movie spins its yarn, an animal is going to have the instinct to eat, perhaps even kill and eat, even if we’re just growing it in this box. So, it isn’t a stretch to think that something that was one cell a few days ago, and given no outside experiences or stimulation, will “learn” concepts like sharpness, or figure out that it needs to stay on the station because drifting out into space will be bad, or file tax returns, or whatever else fits the bill at the moment.
There’s a definite place for films that let you check out, but this one is a mile or so too far. It luckily has the cast to keep you somewhat intrigued and entertained, which helps it dodge becoming unwatchable, but with the writing/producing team of Deadpool involved, it seems clear that this is the continuation of Reynolds’ paying that endeavor off. That never seems more clear than when we hit the ending, which feels more like someone in production losing a bet than a decision.