Life is deja vu. Not life itself mind you – let’s say that debate for the existentialist philosophers – but Life, the hacky, trashy alien thriller from director Daniel Espinosa. From a distance, the trailers for the film suggested a film that borrowed heavily from Ridley Scott’s treasured Alien but we’re all smart enough to know that trailers are just marketing tools, often constructed to stimulate nostalgia nodules to sell a product to audiences. So imagine my shock when Life was quite literally nothing less than a watered-down, unimaginative, worthless thieving of one of my favorite films of all time. Seriously, how in the actual fuck is this happening? Let’s examine.
Espinosa is not the kind of director with a built in fanbase. His first film, the Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington action thriller Safe House, was shucked aside by critics, a modest success financially but hardly anything to write home about while 2015’s Child 44, which starred such thespian heavy-hitters as Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and Gary Oldman, barely pulled in a million domestically and was eaten alive by the blogosphere. I cannot for the life of me understand how Espinosa has pivoted from such failure to a big budget, outer space blockbuster starring two of the biggest names in the movie business. He must have a laptop loaded with compromising pictures of Hollywood’s best and brightest…
How else can you explain Jake Gyllenhaal signing on to play David Jordan, a drone of a physician aboard the International Space Station in Life. David is part of an international scientific task force assigned to recover a Mars probe and analyze its contents and he has all the personality traits of a donkey. More specifically Eeyore. Grumbling David lacks any distinctive human characteristics, his one claim to fame being that “he doesn’t like people.” This never comes round in any interesting way, there is no emotional arc to redeem such a misanthropic bore, there is no attention paid to his or any other character’s development. They are but cardboard standees waiting for slaughter.
Even Gyllenhaal, who has been on a 7-year hot streak, is DOA in the role. There is no light behind his eyes, no evidence of passion for the project hidden anywhere in the film. His sincerity, delivered in a painful monotone, is more often than not unintentionally hilarious, especially in a problem solving sequence that involves…a beloved children’s book? Seriously guys. I’m seriously serious. Gyllenhaal’s apathy is palpable – my boy just reallllllyyyy doesn’t seem like he wants to be there – and yet…there he is. It’s as if someone is holding a rusty saw to the neck of his wife and child just behind the camera. Ok sure, he doesn’t have a wife or child but you get the picture. Again, I’m just at a loss.
In their research, David and a bunch of other people whose names I forget (they are equally indefinable and boring and lifeless) stumble upon a single-celled organization. Cue a bunch of Science Talk with a capital S and T, screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s (the pair behind …Deadpool?) failed attempt to convince us that they’re smart and know big words and stuff, and something about how the life form is all muscle, all brain and all eyes. Back on Earth, a little girl has the distinguished honor of naming the creature and she chooses the moniker “Calvin” because why the fuck not?
You would never guess but Calvin is not the cuddly Baby Groot it portends to be. Ariyon Bakare’s chief-commander Hugh Derry is nonetheless goo-goo eyed for the rapidly evolving alien but one mushed up hand later (a finely rendered bit of nasty tension in a film shockingly devoid of such) and the crew realizes that maybe they shouldn’t be poking and prodding at something that has the ability to grow at exponential rates and is all muscle, all brain and all eyes.
If you thought the scientists in Prometheus were dumb wait until you get a load of these guys. There is a point where Hiroyuki Sanada’s Sho (whose character development starts and ends with: he’s a pilot and has a newborn!) in an attempt to “flush” out the alien burns the entirety of their thruster fuel, setting the station on a collision course with Earth’s atmosphere and essentially assuring that this life form makes its way to the planet’s surface. You know, the one thing that they were supposed to not let happen.
Shortsightedness define the characters just as shortchanging the audience defines Espinosa’s product. There are promising moments of note – Ryan Reynolds doing his whole snarky douche routine actually lends some much-needed energy to the proceeding, there’s a few gooey kills that are fun to watch unfold and the visuals are impressive, especially on a restricted $58 million production budget – but like a comet entering Earth’s atmosphere, Life deteriorates at rapid speed. Jon Ekstrand’s corny score only amplifies the absurdity. What promise there was in act one was evaporated by the end, evolving into a tide of unintentional hilarity that had our audience cackling at the stupidity onscreen. The introduction of “Calvin-vision”, which reintroduces a deservedly retired late 90s/early 2000s visual trope, doesn’t help matters.
To boil it down to the simplest sentiment, Life is plagiarism misinterpreted. Had Espinosa found some joy in this thieving of Alien, offering campy thrills, far-out visuals and a rollicking good time, he may have been onto something. It still being a total rip off aside. But Life is a campy movie that refuses to be campy, that attempts sincerity and profundity and falls flat on its face. Laughable in its misplaced sincerity, Life does not embrace the inherent ridiculousness of a life form that grows from a single cell to a floating bird of prey in the matter of hours and in going highbrow, it turns itself into a parody.
I would suggest that Life is like if Gavin Hood directed Alien or Brett Rather directed Alien but it’s far simpler than that. Life is like if Daniel Espinosa directed Alien. And that’s exactly what we got, in all its ugly glory. When Ryan Reynolds is the only guy who even seems to understands what kind of movie he should be in and he’s seen upstaging Jake Gyllenhaal, Houston you have a problem.
CONCLUSION: Recipe for Daniel Espinosa’s ‘Life’: Steal Alien. Glaze with modern CGI. Lift all signs of horror and tension. Add big marque names. Give them nothing to do. Dose with a heavy-hand of hokum. Then give it a little more hokum. One more splash of hokum…Voila! You have yourself one big, stupid, stinky, plagiarized dud.