While it might be easy to dismiss Daniel Espinosa’s Life as a b-movie with a larger-than-usual budget and commensurate star wattage, that would gloss over the fact that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing when the movie does what it does well.
And for the most part, Life does. While it has certain problem areas, as a claustrophobic thriller set in cramped quarters in space, it’s surprisingly effective. One of the earliest shots is an impressive, longish sequence seemingly done in one long tracking shot. Though likely digitally composited– which is to say, not an actual single-take tracking shot, it’s nonetheless a technical feat that requires lots of planning and skill to execute.
But for the purposes of story, it achieves a few things: First, it fixes a tense sequence’s pacing in real time, making the audience feel like we’re there with the crew, watching events unfold. Secondly, it introduces the characters in the story, shifting from one to the other as they go about their business.
Third, it establishes the setting so that we have a general idea of the space station they’re in, and how they traverse it. Finally, it’s a bit of showing off: there’s lots of CG (everything outside the windows of the station, at the very least), and some of the most impressive zero-g movement yet featured in a movie.
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey underlines the zero-g-ness of it all by filming some sequences upside-down. After all, without gravity, everything can operate on its own axis. It’s a great sequence.
The story, by the way, is that a probe sent to Mars has returned to the International Space Station, bringing with it the first sample of extraterrestrial, microscopic life. There it will be studied in isolation before it is deemed safe enough to be brought to Earth’s surface. Naturally, complications ensue as the lifeform is revealed to be hostile, extremely adaptable, and is growing very, very fast.
The first scene of outright horror is another great one, shot with lots of claustrophobic close-ups. It actually made an elderly couple leave the theater; one assumes they didn’t realize, with a title like Life and a poster of three astronauts’ faces, that this was a scary movie. We are introduced to the antagonist (dubbed Calvin), which, for the moment, looks like a starfish with flatworm arms.
The entire film, Calvin is a CG creation, and while occasionally it is too obviously CG, most of the time it is believably solid. The design of the creature changes as it grows, which is an effective way of preying on most people’s fears of insects, snakes, flying roaches, and octopi.
It exhibits traits of these animals at different times, assisted ably by smart sound design (try to see it in an Atmos theater if you get a chance). In the silence of space, the sound of Calvin skittering away, unseen, or “flapping” as it chases after you is unnerving. So, too, when it’s constricting around someone’s limb, crushing the bones within.
The body horror featured is creative; they come up with some interesting new ways to kill people in space that we haven’t seen before. It’s not especially gory, but sustained tension had seatmates on either side of me squirming; one guy had his whole body turned away from the screen, the lady on my other side was sitting on her hands while muttering “Oh God” under her breath repeatedly.
What keeps Life from being great are scenes between the horror. Such downtime usually gives way to corny dialogue or old cliches like someone talking about life back home (thus guaranteeing their death, according to b-movie rules).
There are also occasional lapses in intelligence from people who are supposed to be, after all, rocket scientists. Sometimes they don’t listen to their commanding officer. More than once, they exclaim loudly “Fu-k this shit” before doing something stupid or against protocol, all so they can take a crack at the monster (and thus create more problems).
A b-movie to its core (all the way down to its ending), Life is a taut, tense thriller that is best experienced with squeamish company. It may not cement itself in the annals of film history, but it’s a fun enough time at the theater, provided you enjoy vicarious thrills.
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