SXSW: Alien horror film “Life” isn’t out of this world

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Photo Credit: Iris Bilich | Daily Texan Staff

The crew of a space vessel comes into contact with a terrifying creature that picks of its members one by one. As the casualties mount, the crew must find a way to kill the organism, or at least prevent it from reaching mankind.  

No, this isn’t Ridley Scott’s “Alien” – this is Daniel Espinosa’s “Life.” One is a timeless classic, and the other is a passable. Guess which is which.

Yet, “Life” isn’t all bad. It opens rather promisingly, with the crew of the International Space Station receiving a sample of alien life from a Mars probe. Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) eagerly studies the organism and watches it grow exponentially in size out of its petri dish. This is worrisome to Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), who is in charge of extraterrestrial containment protocol.

The rest of the ISS roster includes the misanthropic Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), wisecracking Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds), family man Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada) and team leader Katerina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya). “Life” takes its time to develop its characters in the first act, so it’s easy to dread the damnation that awaits them. Perhaps they sense their impending doom as well, because they’re all just as anxious as Miranda is about the alien. It’s not long before Hugh’s curiosity gets the better of him and he lets his guard down, giving the creature, codenamed “Calvin,” an easy opening to strike.

Espinosa deploys the best special effects to create Calvin, which is a cross between a jellyfish, facehugger and Audrey from “Little Shop of Horrors.” Its method of attack involves slithering down its victims’ throat or squeezing them so hard their appendages crack. Either way, it invokes the worst body horror imaginable as he preys upon the crew.

Calvin is also uninterested in the fame of each actor in the film, which leads to a surprising twist as to which astronauts bite the dust first. Letting the audience know that anyone can die is a tried and true way of raising the stakes, and Espinosa uses it well here.

As Calvin grows larger, he also gets smarter. He learns how to take advantage of the ISS’ many nooks and crannies, allowing him to appear anywhere at any time. It’s scary to see something so primitive and inhuman take on superhuman intelligence. Miranda astutely observes that Calvin doesn’t consume his victims out of malice, but simply to survive.

Unfortunately, it all goes downhill from here. The strangely dull screenplay from usually witty writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick does the picture no favors as it the second and third acts move too briskly for the characters to have more meaningful interactions.  It’s a problem only compounded by the fact that the only memorable character gets killed first.

The directing and the action beats do more of the heavy-lifting when it comes to sustaining the tension and engaging viewers. Unfortunately, there are still too many parallels between “Life” and similar movies, and not enough differences, for it to make a stronger impression.

Due to its derivative nature, “Life” an odd choice for the closing film of South by Southwest. It’s not terribly unique or remarkable, and it doesn’t achieve much beyond being a big budget B-movie that borrows plot points without using them creatively. This is a highly disappointing picture that deserves credit for its technical prowess but will likely be rejected for its lack of narrative aspiration. From the start, the vision for this film was misguided and too familiar to what’s come before, and you’ll wish rumors that “Life” is a secret Venom origin story were true. At least then it would be something alien.

 

“Life”

Running Time: 103 minutes

Rating: R

Score: 2.5/5 stars