If for some reason you have never seen the 1979 film Alien and don’t plan on seeing it, then 2017’s Life will most likely be something of a revelation in subgenre of space horror. However, if you’re a reasonable person and you’ve seen Alien, you’ll be finding yourself counting the familiar moments throughout. That isn’t to say that the ride doesn’t still work it’s entertaining thrills until the last minute, because it certainly does. The key problem is that it can’t help but pale in comparison to the masterpiece it evokes.
Life follows a six person cast aboard the International Space Station almost on their way home when they’re prompted to intercept another satellite that is carrying Martian soil. We move rather quickly through character introductions. We meet the three faces on the poster, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson, who jumped up in notoriety by breathing fresh life into Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. We also meet the captain of the mission, Olga Dihovichnaya, biologist Ariyon Bakare, and engineer Hiroyuki Sanada. To the film’s credit, the overall crew feels a bit more developed than the whole crew of the Nostromo from Alien. They perform tests on the soil, they find single-celled organisms, the organism rapidly grows, they name it Calvin. All is well.
THIS IS THE PART WHERE SOME SPOILERS HAPPEN. SKIP TO THE END IF YOU WANT THE SUMMARY OF THE REVIEW.
As assumed (and unfortunately revealed in most trailers), things break bad vis-à-vis alien life rather quickly. The constantly growing Calvin latches onto the biologist’s hand, wraps around it, and then slowly breaks every bone it can. When he passes out due to shock, Calvin finds a way to escape his enclosure. This is immediately followed by a high-ranking woman being the only one thinking rationally about maintaining the quarantine protocols until a lower-ranking man physically overrides her order and the safety door. But enough about Sigourney Weaver and Ian Holm in Alien! *puts on sunglasses and does a fingergun motion*
Ryan Reynolds, cocky and quippy as ever, forces the door open to save the biologist. As he pushes the still unconscious man out the door, Gyllenhaal notices Calvin latch onto Reynolds’ leg and shuts the door on him. The tension in this scene is thick and effective. Now separated, the crew must find a way to save Reynolds from something they know nothing about. Everything ramps up to Reynolds finding a modified flamethrower gun and frantically trying to burn the alien to death. Then, the arrogant “cowboy” of the crew, zeroing in on his target, fires a column of flame directly at it, only to find the alien had the upper hand the whole time, as it appears behind him and kills him. But enough about the scene where Tom Skerritt dies in Alien! *puts on second pair of sunglasses while air horns play in background*
Its truly shocking to see (arguably) the most famous person in the movie be the first one to die, but it effectively tells the audience that there are no more rules and no one is safe. I won’t spoil any further because there isn’t much need to, and these previous spoilers are partially necessary to show how the film does things differently, and it does continue to do later on, despite my ridiculous jokes. In particular, this crew wants nothing to do with their monster, whereas the xenomorph in Alien is supposed to be captured. Both crews are entirely expendable.
THIS IS THE PART WHERE THE SPOILERS STOP.
Had Alien not been such a cultural touchstone, this film would probably stand up a lot stronger. Life still works almost in spite of the earlier film, though nowhere nearly as well. What it repeats, it does with diminishing returns. What it changes, it does so with surprising success. The finale is also a bit refreshing and fairly unexpected. Its a perfectly fine and fun film with plenty of well-shot zero-gravity thrills, even if it won’t stick with you for all that long.