I know I go on a lot about the various evils of predictable films, lack of new ideas in mainstream cinema, fear of innovation, and so on, and it does occur to me that perhaps I am making just a little bit too much fuss about this. Perhaps there is something to be said after all for movies which don’t set out to up-end expectations, mash genres beyond all recognition, or carve out a bold new niche for themselves. Familiarity isn’t always a necessarily ugly word.
I have been moved to this thought by Daniel Espinosa’s Life, which lends itself more readily than most recent films to the ‘it’s X meets Y’ game (one that I usually try not to play as a point of principle) and its numerous variations. Hey, let’s indulge ourselves for once: it’s The Quatermass Experiment meets Gravity, or The Thing set in low orbit – either of those capsule descriptions strikes me as largely accurate and highly informative as to the kind of movie this is.
Life is set in and around the International Space Station in a fairly near future (the film is intentionally vague about this). The six-person crew is very excited as the first sample of soil samples from Mars are about to arrive, and there are indications that the probe has located something truly exceptional on the Red Planet – preserved microbial life!
Well, work on the Martian cells gets under way, with appropriately strict precautions in place, and soon enough the chief boffin (Ariyon Bakare) has cultured himself a cute little Martian blobby thing. You can almost certainly guess what happens next, but anyway: there is a mishap, resulting in the organism turning aggressively hostile, and before you can say ‘Fendahl Core’ the crew are doing battle with a rapidly-growing lifeform (alien monsters, especially ones you get trapped in a confined space with, are always rapidly-growing, as any fule kno) that has already laid waste to Mars. Can they survive? And, more importantly, can they ensure that the Martian creature never reaches the planet below…?
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests that at least half of all SF movies also fall into the horror category, and while I’m not sure Life contains quite enough grisliness to satisfy the most dedicated gorehounds, I suspect there’s quite enough unpleasantness here to make the average person go ‘Ewwww,’ and think about looking away. There’s a gripping sequence illustrating why you should never shake hands with an unknown alien, someone has a very unpleasant experience in a broken space-suit (this appears to have been inspired by a real-life incident from 2013), there are scenes involving flame-throwers and defibrillators (these strike me as being a knowing tip of the hat to some of Life‘s more celebrated progenitors), and so on.
The odd thing about Life is not the fact that, from the very beginning until the very end of the movie, you are never really in any doubt as to what’s going to happen next, because this is a well-worn tale, to say the least. The odd thing is that it really doesn’t matter, and in a strange way it may even add to the fun of the film – anyone with a working knowledge of how this kind of movie is structured, and why people get billed in the order they do on movie posters, probably has a very good chance of being able to work out exactly what order the various characters are going to get picked off in.
Quite apart from the gribbly alien horror elements of the story (the Martian ends up looking rather cephalopodic, which, all things considered, probably qualifies this film as being on some level Lovecraftian), the most obvious influence on Life is obviously Gravity. The new movie doesn’t have quite the same breath-taking technical virtuosity, but the fact remains that this is another film set almost entirely in zero-G, using (almost wholly) credible technology – the fact it’s so close to reality is one of the things that makes the film such fun. I’m pretty sure this film wasn’t shot on location on the ISS, but it nevertheless does a good job of first conning you into thinking that it could have been, and then making you take for granted that everyone’s casually floating around. Only at a few key moments does the film get ostentatious about its zero-G effects – at one point someone sheds a tear, and it bobbles off their face and floats away, but to be honest, most of these involve great clusters of globs of blood drifting about the place.
Lest you think this is just reheated splatter on a space station, some proper actors are participating and seem to be having fun doing so. Ryan Reynolds is the mission’s pilot and engineer, and you are reminded what an able and amiable screen presence Reynolds is; hopefully he’s not going to spend half his time playing Deadpool from now on. Rebecca Fergusson is the quarantine officer in charge of keeping the Martian from reaching Earth, although she is British, she is also part of the (US-based) Centre for Disease Control, which struck me as a little odd – alien monsters are admittedly outside the remit of Public Health England, but there’s always the WHO… Playing the station doctor is Jake Gyllenhaal, who gives a typically thought-through performance, although you can’t quite shake the impression he’s only here because his agent said ‘You know what, Jake, it’s time you did something a bit more fun for a change.’
There’s nothing tremendously exceptional about Life in any department, but it is a thoroughly competent and entertaining film. You could possibly argue that the climax of the story has rather more energy than elegance, but, once again, this hardly spoils the fun at all. If you don’t like space movies, or horror movies, or indeed horror movies set in space, then this is definitely not one for you. If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, on the other hand, this is a safe bet for a solid trip to the movies. A worthy addition to an honourable tradition.