Little Spaceship of Horrors: Life

lifeLife
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Opens March 24

The mild form of space madness suffered by Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Life offers such a strong match of affliction to actor that his presence in the movie almost makes sense. Gyllenhaal plays David, one of half a dozen astronauts aboard an international space station—and the one who has just broken the record for number of consecutive days spent in space. He seems, if not exactly psyched, acclimated to his little life in orbit. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) warns him about his muscles atrophying, but he’s still not looking forward to returning to Earth. He likes it up here, he explains. He likes the hum of the ship, and the air.

Also a fan of oxygen, as it turns out: A tiny life form excavated from Mars, to be studied by Hugh (Ariyon Bakare), who at the behest of an elementary school back on Earth names the thing Calvin. Calvin seems dormant at first, but eventually goes through a growth spurt. Then another. Then another. It’s midway through the second one that it starts to seem like this process is happening in direct opposition to the astronauts’ survival.

The rapid growth from intriguing science project to aggressive threat is kind of an Audrey II situation, and the creature’s eventual, nascent mouth-ish feature sort of looks like that man-eating plant, crossed with a particularly crafty octopus. Life covers this ground efficiently—the whole thing takes about 100 minutes, not counting end credits—but fails to avoid the ritual trading of family backstories to offer the bare minimum of cheap pathos for its potential victims. Even Rory (Ryan Reynolds), whose characterization otherwise extends only so far as a series of standard Reynolds-issue semi-zingers, mentions that he can’t wait to get home to his beloved dog. Spoilers: Not everyone is going to make it home to their beloved whatevers.

The fact that Gyllenhaal, in his sensitive-weirdo way, might not share the other five’s affection for their back-down-there lives is an interesting the wrinkle the movie never really explores. Beyond a generic fear of an interplanetary Other (Ferguson’s Miranda quickly comes to feel “pure fucking hate” for the thing, a reaction she acknowledges isn’t exactly scientific in nature), the movie’s themes are significantly less weighty than the floating space station residents. So is this thing any damn fun? The answer is: kind of. It’s filled with watchable actors and tense situations, and would probably be a chilling and entirely diverting exercise in sheer style if Swedish director Daniel Espinosa didn’t fudge his visuals quite so compulsively.

At first, he seems more disciplined than he did on his last big team-up with Reynolds, Safe House (he did the dreary Child 44 in between). That movie was an adrenalized mess of fast cuts and handheld camera, while this one begins with long, lingering shots of a Mars capsule in the distance of deep space, all but announcing the intent to make the transition from Tony Scott imitator to Ridley Scott imitator. There’s a touch of Gravity, too, when Espinosa cuts into the space station and begins slow push through its interior. It seems like the shot is primed to end when it pulls up to Reynolds’ face as he prepares for a spacewalk, but the camera keeps swooping and tilting, simulating a low-gravity experience, as it explores the rest of the ship, introducing other characters and even briefly following an errant food packet.

But when the big set pieces arrive, they don’t proceed with the same patience. There’s a later spacewalk scene involving a particularly inventive form of peril that should be unbearably tense but settles for less when it doesn’t bother to linger on any of the procedural details that would kick it to the next level of space terror. That happens constantly throughout Life; Espinosa isn’t cutting as fast, but he’ll cut in too close or cut around the action in ways that renders it, if not unclear, weirdly vague. Right down to the last five minutes or so, the movie indulges a kind of mid-level flimflam, effective in the moment but never very sophisticated.

Eventually, most of Life feels like a con, albeit one that never gets dull. Ferguson, Gyllenhaal, Reynolds, and company are there to make the material a little more human, despite the movie never really earning it (you can’t just have a character read Goodnight Moon out of order during a point of crisis and expect people to weep with sadness or terror). Espinosa is there to make it look good, despite his tendency to skimp on striking shots in the clutch. The score gets in on the act, too: It doesn’t creep with menace but, for at least the first 40 minutes, vibrates with awe at this breakthrough discovery, well past the point where the audience has begun to suspect that something is amiss (helped along by trailers that, if anything, make the horror bits look even swifter and more perfunctory than they already are). Even its title portends something a little bigger than this. Life is a straightforward, negligible, sort of enjoyable stop-the-bad-alien thriller. So who, exactly, is it trying to fool?

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