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Courtesy of Skydance Media

March 30, 2017

A Matter of Life and Death

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From the moment it was announced, Life was immediately accused of being an Alien derivative, albeit with a bigger budget and more diverse cast. The trailers, which consisted of astronauts screaming aboard a space station while a hostile extraterrestrial entity hunted for them, coupled with eerie and frightening music, did nothing to assuage those claims. Though Life unashamedly borrows much of its plot points and retreads themes from Ridley Scott’s magnum opus, it distinguishes itself from the Xenomorph frenzy by way of a realistic, believable setting. The stakes feel very real, and in vein with similar films like Arrival and Gravity, Life is concerned with matters here and now, employing a cautionary tale of the dangers of careless curiosity. Though the film plays on formulaic conventions, it does provide creative, blood curdling horror and impressive visuals. Yet, Life’s visual effects and thematic concerns cannot overcome character shortcomings and its tonal inconsistency.

The film takes place in the near future and focuses on a six person team aboard the International Space Station. The crew consists of commander Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), quarantine officer Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), pilot Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), system engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada) and biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare). After recovering a soil specimen from a Mars space probe, the group discovers a single-celled organism buried within the sample. The crew then broadcasts their finding to the world, with excited school children later naming the martian creature “Calvin.” However, as the astronauts continue to experiment and learn more about Calvin, it evolves and rapidly grows in size and displays a penchant for violence. During one test session, Calvin severely wounds Hugh and escapes from its captivity. The crew then attempts to kill Calvin before it flees to Earth, while also trying to find a way to escape themselves.

The entirety of the film only takes place aboard the International Space Station, yet the setting never feels trite. As expected, Earth is the backdrop, but instead of being portrayed as warm and inviting, it feels cold, distant and lifeless in contrast to life aboard the space station. Director Daniel Espinosa subverts this expectation when Calvin is unleashed; Earth now becomes a place to be saved, and the safe haven of the station becomes a terrifying maze of uncertainty, where one lever can either lead to salvation or straight into the cold and hungry tentacles of Calvin.

Through clever camera angles that pan around from 360 shots to intimate close-ups, director of cinematography Seamus McGarvey utilizes his surroundings well, and deftly balances tension and wonder. For example, in the film’s breathtaking opening sequence, the crew attempts to capture the Mars space probe before it crashes into the station. For fifteen minutes, McGarvey and Espinosa do not cut away the camera but judiciously follow the movements of each astronaut, as they work together to catch the probe. Espinosa also expertly showcases the zero-gravity environment, focusing on the almost super-human agility of the astronauts as they float and glide within the space station. Likewise, drops of sweat remain almost frozen in the air as the characters work in their respective stations. The attention to detail can be dizzying. This is where Life is most effective — when the film simply documents events without slowing down to introduce contrived themes. In those scenes, you feel like an unnamed seventh member of the crew.

Yet, the film’s pacing is a double-edged sword. For a movie called Life, it is frustrating that so many of its characters seemed bereft of it, which is a travesty considering the amount of talent Espinosa was able to assemble. Most of the characters are merely caricatures, though to their credit the actors and actresses try to inject personality when the film slows down for brief moments. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a misanthropic medical officer and yet he is consistently called on to help those who have been wounded by Calvin. Rebecca Ferguson is strict and follows orders to the letter, but shows brief moments of vulnerability and lament for the rest of the crew. Ariyon Bakare dually portrays childlike glee at being able to experiment on Calvin and mortification when the creature begins attacking his friends. Hiroyuki Sanada adds emotional weight to the film by revealing that he has a newly-born daughter he wishes to get back to on Earth. Olga Dihovichnaya is given the least amount of development, her lines mostly boiling down to giving exposition, though she does have a heroic moment in the film. The one character who does stick out is Rory Adams,played by Ryan Reynolds, who’s pervasive jokes and slapstick banter add much-needed humor to many tense moments. Towards the end of the film, Life diverges into another humans versus alien spectacle and strips away the characters of any diversity that would make them interesting.

Likewise, Life feels pulled in so many directions that it is hard to discern what the film is trying to achieve. It could just be a sci-fi horror flick, but Espinosa’s emphasis on the crew’s diversity could be a statement on the importance of unity across color and ethnicity. There seems to be so much room for potential. Sadly, Espinosa never picks up that thematic thread. While typically nuance should make a film more mature, Life’s inconsistencies only muddle the potency of its message.

Life is by no means a terrible film; it has moments of chilling suspense and genuine terror and the actors perform well. But, Life never realizes its full potential and ultimately fails to escape from the shadow set by past trapped-in-space genre films. Though Life wishes to be graded apart from Alien, everything from familiar plot lines to its monosyllabic title sadly undermines those efforts.

Zachary Lee is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zjl4@cornell.edu

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