Life opens with a rousing scene. Our astronauts on the ISS are trying to catch a damaged satellite that is carrying priceless Martian samples. Out in space, catching the wayward satellite like a game of baseball is Ryan Reynolds, playing a loud American. The camera swirls and dives in all directions, aiming to impress with a long seeming-continuous shot, and illustrating at the same time the all-pervading weightlessness inside the space station. All this tells us that Life wants to be a simple straight movie, starring well-known actors, wanting to excite you but not bothering too much with realism or complication, and that it is trying to put its best foot forwards.
There is something too artificial about this film. First, the dialogue: the astronauts have so many conversations about profound things, like how these are the important days of their lives, and about the beauty of life and about violence down on Earth. Second, the casting: Ryan Reynolds feels really out of place as an astronaut. He works as Deadpool, but I disliked his lame jokes here from the start. The British scientist sounds too much as if he is narrating a BBC documentary. It just feels as if this movie was designed so much to be certain ways, that you are immediately and all the time aware of watching a movie.
It’s a relief when all hell breaks loose. The awkward first act of setting the scene is over and director Daniel Espinosa clearly finds himself on firm ground when it comes to action and suspense. Things escalate nicely when an alien lifeform is found in the Martian sample and grows up to be life-threatening. The tension works. The first real scene of trouble is a nail biter. However, this is also one of those films where scientists make very dumb decisions, and some alien lifeform is smarter and indestructible to a degree that is really unbelievable. In effect, we have a human crew fighting an indestructible special effect.
The story echoes much of the Species and Alien franchises, in particular the biological terror of the face huggers and the weird worms and black goo of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. We have a tiny wormlike creature that is apparently strong enough to break human bones, survive anything and enter our face, like in Prometheus. Like Alien: Covenant, we have people taking unnecessary risks, and what I’d like to call slapstick panic. You know, people slipping over blood… getting their feet stuck between doors, that kind of stuff. It is rather strange that the ISS crew report none of this to the control centers on Earth, but that is hardly the only strange decision made here.
During quiet moments, Jake Gyllenhaal plays the thoughtful hero with the light of the stars in his faraway gaze. Gyllenhaal always brings a realism and intensity to his acting that is very welcome here. Rebecca Ferguson also makes a good impression as a leader and scientist, similar to Jessica Chastain in The Martian. Another positive thing is the design of the alien creature. Not only does it have an intriguing shape, it is also better equipped to move around in weightless environments. Space is its territory, clearly, and not ours. The special effects of the space station are excellent too, taking a page from Gravity.
While Gyllenhaal and Ferguson do their best, and while the effects look good… by the time that most of the action scenes are past us it is all a bit too late to turn this film into something memorable. Melancholic music cannot help it anymore, because too much of the action was just a bit too standard, the science too unbelievable and the humans too clumsy. I’m afraid that that is the destiny of this film: to be a rather standard space horror film in which the space setting feels a bit misused for producing standard thrills.