Box Office Democracy: “Life”
Life is a fine movie. It’s reasonably well-acted, the creature effects are stunning, and the script has enough twists and turns to keep the audience on its toes. Unfortunately, Life is a monster movie set in a confined area in outer space— and while that’s a remarkably specific genre, it contains some titanic movies. Life is a good movie; Alien is a timeless classic. It’s not entirely fair to make Life stand against a movie like that but it was all I could think of while I was watching it. Life begs to be compared to movies it withers against, and while I struggle to say an entire genre/setting is out of bounds, you should probably come with something that makes your movie undeniably special and not just an attempt to be incrementally better than the last horror movie they saw.
There’s a bit of a pacing problem in Life— although one that is kind of unavoidable in a movie like this. Once the monster is on the loose it moves along nicely but it feels like forever until we get to that point. Most of the first hour is gone before anything happens, and if we were building a deep understanding of the characters and their relationships it would feel just fine, but instead it just seems like the movie wants to go over the exposition two or three times. I promise you: I understand that this alien is very strong and very adaptable. That’s literally every science fiction alien that isn’t going for the War of the Worlds twist.
They have made a very scary alien though. They stress (over and over) that the creature is infinitely adaptable, that every cell is a muscle, a brain, and an eye, and it gives them an impressive latitude to make the creature more terrifying every time we see it. It starts as an amorphous blob and gets more and more defined as it gets bigger until it looks an awful lot like the horrifying cross between a dragon and a Rorschach blot. I will say that for a creature that allegedly has vision capacity in every cell it definitely developed a traditional earth-like face and head, but honestly what do I know about Martian zoology?
Considering how long we have to get to the action it’s borderline outrageous that the characters never feel like more than rough sketches. We have the brash American, the stalwart business-like Russian commander, the British scientist who can’t see past the academic worth of the discovery, the Japanese man torn between the responsibilities of his job and his newborn daughter, the medic who has set the record for longest time in space and sees his home as being in orbit and not on the planet, and the quarantine officer with questionable allegiances. That’s all the character anyone in this movie shows. It’s not like there aren’t good actors here, but there’s no depth to play. We’re at the climax of the film and none of the decisions seem based on information that wasn’t in the first 20 minutes. No one grows and no one changes except from living person to alien food.
If you just want to be scared in a movie theater for an hour and 45 minutes, then there’s honestly nothing wrong with Life, it’s got a great sense of tension and some original creature and effects work. In the last month or so we’ve seen Get Out and Kong: Skull Island release and both are in the same general zone, and both blow Life out of the water. Get Out is a smarter, more chilling intimate character piece and Kong is vastly superior at pumping out big spectacle. There’s no space for Life in this cinematic climate and honesty, with the exception of just being dumped in the doldrum months I can’t imagine a time when Life would stand out. It’s a fantastic movie to discover some random evening on HBO and a mediocre use of one’s time in a theater.