Stephen Hawking once opined that when we first make contact with alien life forms, it won’t go well for us. LIFE takes that premise and gives it a derivative ALIEN-esque story and a lackluster execution of same. Set in the near future, aboard the International Space Station, it presents a dark vision of our first encounter with life from another planet, albeit one that starts out by being completely adorable. Clever evil alien.
The life arises from a soil sample returning from Mars via a damaged space capsule. The tantalizing question of whether it is actually Martian, or that it just hitched a ride after disembarking from a meteor swarm is never addressed, and that is just the first of several missed opportunities.
Naturally, everyone on Earth is excited, but not as excited as the crew of the ISS, who risked life and limb to bring it aboard. It’s the usual cliché nod to multi-national multi-culturalism with a babe of a Russian commander (Olga Dihovichnaya), a babe of a British mission doctor (Rebecca Ferguson), a babe of a Japanese mission pilot (Hiroyuki Sanada), and a cutie-pie of a British mission exo-biologist (Ariyon Bakare) who is also black. Then there are the two stars, wise-cracking babe Ryan Reynolds as the mission handyman, and brooding babe Jake Gyllenhaal as the mission pilot. The only one not thrilled is the mission lab mouse, securely tied down to keep it from getting into trouble in zero gravity. Its little whiskers begin twitching the minute the thing begins growing in the ISS lab. And it should be worried, it’s about to be the exposition for just what the cute little life form, dubbed Calvin, is capable of doing once it outgrows its delicate yet adorable filament stage into a cross between a butterfly and a starfish. A veiny starfish that, despite having somatic function in all its cells, as in no discreet organs, proves itself capable of planning and hunting. Not unlike the slime molds found here on Earth, but more about that later.
Before we get to the meat of the life-and-death struggle that will ensue, we spend a little time getting to know our characters, at least superficially. Gyllenhaal’s is a shell-shocked war vet who never wants to see Earth again, Reynolds and Bakare have a bantering sort of bromance going, Ferguson can barely disguise the way she is pining for Gyllenhaal as the script ruthlessly uses her as an expositional device, and Dihovichnay is as coldly efficient as a Siberian winter. Only the mouse truly engages us emotionally, though, and this is a problem. Once Calvin breaks out, after being shocked from dormancy by Bakare, he goes on a rampage that may not be personal, but is lethal. At a certain point, it becomes more engrossing to see how it will get the better of the humans, than how the humans can fend it off.
Bones are squeezed into gooey powder, internal organs become a smorgasbord, and by the time the crew figures out that Calvin is not only sentient, but also several steps ahead of them, it’s way too late. The story sets a mood that is unsettling and creepy instead of terrifying, but fails to also deliver the underlying tension that would have kept us on the edge of our seats. It’s more interesting than compelling, with committed performances by the cast, and a whiz-bang use of the idea that in zero gravity, there is no right-side-up. Kudos, too, for the art direction that keeps the feeling of claustrophobia going with its dark, utilitarian view of the near future, even as it sets the stage for would-be profound musings that land like the bleeding obvious observations that they are. For further angst, add plot holes and inconsistencies that rankle, and a would-be twist ending that is less a surprise than an insult to our collective intelligence.
As a tonic, I highly recommend a delightful and disquieting documentary, THE CREEPING GARDEN, that delves into the phenomenon of those ci-mentioned slime molds, which may very well come from outer space. Certainly, they bear no resemblance to any other life form on here on Earth. After seeing both, it and LIFE, you will be far more entertained and intrigued than by LIFE, and also relieved to know that these slime molds have chosen to live side by side, rather than feeding upon, us. At least for now.