'Life' fails to innovate

Sci-fi thriller is heavy on scares, light on plot

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'Life" offers plenty of horror, but not much more.

Courtesy Skydance Media

Space is the ideal frontier for horror and catastrophe — the claustrophobia of space stations contrasted with the vast emptiness of the unknown provides endless opportunities for terror. “Life” attempts to capitalize on this opportunity, providing a terrifying what-if scenario for the potential of extraterrestrial life in the vein of “Alien.” However, “Life” too often relies on contrived plot devices and weak character development, preventing it from standing out amongst other films of a similar genre.

“Life” revolves around a team of astronauts aboard the International Space Station who conduct research on a potential sample of an extraterrestrial life form from Mars, named “Calvin” by the public. What starts out as a simple study soon turns deadly, as Calvin rapidly develops and becomes volatile — threatening the crew members’ lives and the safety of those on Earth below.

The film wastes no time launching into action — though that’s not necessarily a good thing. With little exposition or character development, the audience is given no reason to care for these astronauts as they fight to stay alive. Brief, cliched backstories are thrown in — pilot Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada) watches his wife give birth via tablet, while medical officer David (Jake Gyllenhaal) recounts horrors from his time working in Syria — but they do little to replace the actual development the film desperately needs.

Fortunately, the talented group of actors tries to make up for this lack of character development by making the best they can out of a weak script. Ryan Reynolds is a scene-stealer as engineer Rory, who plays like a toned-down version of Reynolds’ “Deadpool.” Rebecca Ferguson is also solid as quarantine officer Miranda North, who is torn between following protocol and protecting her friends. Her internal crisis is evident, and Ferguson beautifully portrays the tragedy of North’s struggle.

Good acting can’t completely overcome the tired plot devices that plague “Life,” though. The storyline hinges on the failures of the supposedly top-notch team. The members make grievous mistakes at every turn — which might not be as frustrating in the average horror film, but in this scenario, it is hard to believe. Plot points are brought up at several moments and abruptly forgotten. At one point, Calvin swallows a type of tracking device, which in theory would make his capture much easier. However, this only seems to matter for a few minutes, and then it is never mentioned again.

For all of its faults, “Life” is still a truly horrifying film. Calvin is a surprisingly frightening and brutal villain, and the inescapable nature of the team’s situation raises the stakes even further. “Life” is not as thought-provoking or well-written as films like “Gravity,” or “Interstellar,” but it is not terrible, either. In the entire genre of space thrillers, “Life” is solidly mediocre.

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