• 'Life' (2017)

    In Life, from director Daniel Espinosa and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the International Space Station is awaiting the return of an unmanned probe carrying a soil sample from the surface of Mars. Once captured, the sample will be kept in a sealed box in a sealed laboratory compartment and analysed with the aim of finding out whether the thing that has caused so much cultural and scientific speculation since the Red Planet was discovered actually exists, and if so in what form…

    Just as space is becoming increasingly crowded, so that particular orbit of speculative fiction that positions a small crew in a large vessel and isolates both along with whatever is about to unfold is experiencing rapid growth. Formerly sparsely occupied, with only 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1972) and Alien (1979) arriving in over thirty years (thus ensuring that each would come to be regarded as a touchstone in the sub-genre), even later entries like Event Horizon (1997) made little real impact.

    Only after the Millennium – almost as if awaiting passage of the titular year from Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking epic – did the concept gain fresh momentum, with releases including Sunshine (2007), Love (2011), Gravity (2013). Sitting slightly outside of these, since set on planetary bodies, is Moon (2009) and a slew of productions that take place on Mars itself.

    By no means all of these films take the horror angle, with several opting for ambiguity if not actual positivity, but for Reese and Wernick it indeed is the former that propels events. After an extended (and slightly confusing) scene-setting pre-titles sequence, then, and the usual introduction to the expectedly varied crew, a detailed examination of the cellular organism soon turns into something rather more visceral – red Mars, indeed. It is here that Espinosa is at his strongest, quite literally internalising the horrors that befall the unfortunate crew members and relying principally on sound and performance rather than grand guignol visuals to do so.

    It is, though, after this that both screenplay and direction show the kind of weaknesses signalled in that opening scene and which prove to plague the entirety of the film. Several plot points appear to have been skipped or rendered so lightly that they they pass the viewer by, resulting in jumps or elisions in motivation or procedure that become increasingly frustrating and ultimately act to reduce the film to a series of episodic occurrences in real need of a more organic (as it were) justification.

    Character definition, so crucial in such a set-up, is also not what it could be. Indeed despite the presence of Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Hiroyuki Sanada (Kaneda from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine) in the cast, very few roles really take on identities of their own. A couple of pleasingly intimate moments, when both exobiologist Derry (an admittedly excellent Ariyon Bakare) and medical officer Jordan (Gyllenhaal) each reveal a very personal reason for their presence on the ISS, show what might have been but sadly these are not repeated for the remainder of the team.

    As a result the progress of Martian life throughout the space station becomes simply a numbers game, as each astronaut is affected one by one and attempt after attempt is made to resolve the situation. Those lapses in logic and continuity continue, rendering the result even more of a repetitive exercise, whilst the piece as a whole is both predictable and derivative.

    Strangely, though, something in the mix does work to make Life very enjoyable despite all this, especially in the first two acts. Pure shock value should never be underestimated in its power to entertain, and the titular organism is sufficiently novel in its manifestations – at least initially – to keep one interested. Ferguson especially is seldom less than watchable, even if her part if as underwritten as the rest.

    The ending almost redeems the aforementioned flaws, demonstrates once more the kernel of originality that lies buried below the surface of this latest entry in the sub-genre and certainly leaves a sardonic smile on one’s face. Ultimately, though, whilst life must always find a way, it cannot in this case evolve into something truly new.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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