You’ve Already Seen this Movie
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare and Ryan Reynolds
Running Time: 1 Hr,43 Mins
Sony is investing a lot in its renewed Spider-Man franchise. Not only is it re-launching everyone’s favourite wallcrawler in a new movie this summer following his appearance in last year’s blockbuster Captain America: Civil War, they’re expanding his cinematic universe to include other Spider related characters. Chief among that crowd is Venom, arguably his most famous villain after the Green Goblin. In the days before Sony released their new sci-fi movie Life, rumours that it was a prequel that introduced the Venom symbiote and told the story of how it arrived on Earth set the Internet on fire. Alas, the rumours turned out to be just that and Life was a movie all on its own (wouldn’t it have been crazy to see Ryan Reynolds involved in another comic book franchise though).
Going the Venom route may have been a better idea.
An elite team of scientists has been assembled at the International Space Station for one of the most important discoveries in the history of the human race. A probe returning from Mars contains evidence proving the existence of life beyond Earth. Dubbed Calvin by the scientists, they soon discover the probe’s cargo contains something infinitely more complex than simple Martian bacteria.
Cut off from Earth and surrounded by the vacuum of space, the space station soon becomes a prison and the crew the menu. Calvin is a fiercely intelligent hunter and its adaptability allows it to outmaneuver prey in even the most inhospitable environments. In case things weren’t bleak enough, the crew find themselves facing a severe moral quandary; balancing their possible survival against containing the ravenous and evolving alien predator they’ve awoken.
The simple truth is if you’ve seen the trailers for Life, you’ve seen most of the movie. Even if you haven’t seen any promotional material, you’ve still seen this movie because the story has been told so many times. Sometimes the setting and circumstances change but the central idea is quite possibly the oldest one in science fiction. Humanity makes a discovery that turns out to be a nightmarish monster who turns on its creators/discovers. Life tries to carve out its own identity with a “surprise” ending that is actually pretty predictable and fails to set it apart.
Life definitely has its moments. Director Daniel Espinosa is able to achieve a genuinely claustrophobic atmosphere at times and there are a few scenes where he pushes the pacing beyond simple jump scares. There are some beautiful space bound cinematic shots that lends the film a documentary feel complimented with a handful of graphic, disturbing shots that hammer home the threat the crew faces as well as the severity of their situation.
It uses the paradoxical truth that all life, human or otherwise, can only exist by destroying other life as a subtext to anchor the story (Calvin can only survive if its kills and feeds off the crew, who can only survive if they kill Calvin). Life does a good job establishing itself as an action/horror movie taking place in an environment where science is a daily fact of life, balancing the action with just the right amount of necessary scientific know-how. It doesn’t dumb things down, but you don’t feel like you’re watching a textbook either.
The cast does an admirable job as well. It was nice seeing Elizabeth Ferguson playing a strong character again after essentially playing a damsel in distress in last fall’s Girl on the Train. Jake Gyllenhaal is efficient as the doctor who prefers the silence of space to a crowded planet Earth and Ryan Reynolds earns his paycheque as a smart alec engineer who communicates with wisecracks and sarcasm. There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie, making each and every loss more intimate.
The problem with Life is it doesn’t offer us anything new. It’s a shame that it couldn’t quite follow in the impressive footsteps of recent science fiction efforts like Interstellar, The Martian and Arrival. It’s a story that’s been recycled time and time again, which is why it would have benefitted from going the Venom route. It could have done so without sacrificing any of the story or performances yet still been a part of something larger and offered something different from all the other discovery-turned-horror movies that have come before it. Life isn’t a bad movie, but the shame is it isn’t a memorable one either. If it had ben a Venom origin story, it would have at least been relevant for as long as Sony’s current Spiderverse.