Like Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” Life isn’t so much a sci-fi film as a horror film set in space. We aren’t concerned with grandiose, science-y themes of humanity coping with the notion of extra-terrestrial life, we’re just here to see a space monster kill some humans and fuck shit up in outer space. That’s perfectly fine, and has been the basis of great movies like Jurassic Park or Jaws, where a powerful monster threatens human life in an isolated environment. But Jurassic Park and Jaws reach greatness because we genuinely perceive the characters as smart and rational people. We wouldn’t be able to do any better than Jeff Goldblum or Richard Dreyfuss at escaping a T-Rex or killing a massive, terrorizing shark. “Life,” though, makes you feel that its alien monster is the only true intelligent life the universe.
“Life” focuses on six astronauts aboard the International Space Station, analyzing a soil sample that has returned from Mars. The soil sample shows signs of Martian life, making the crew naturally ecstatic. Everyone on earth is stoked too, with elementary school students even getting to name the creature Calvin (a much more suitable name than Alien McAlienface, which is what the alien totally would have been named in our real-life 2017.) The crew’s biologist examines Calvin, Calvin becomes aggressive and breaks his hand, everybody freaks out and acts impulsively as Calvin escapes into their ship. Calvin causes chaos and terror, and the crew must figure out a way to kill the beast and not let it get to earth.
At no point do all of the characters gather in a room and discuss the scenario that has unfolded in front of them and how to best solve it, which is how pretty much every other fictional and real-life space crew has dealt with any other conflict in the span of human history. Instead, the crew repeatedly says fuck protocol (Jake Gylenhaal actually does say this), and naturally that makes things immeasurably worse for all onboard except Calvin. This stupidity on the crew’s part leads to some enjoyable thrills. But you can’t suspend your disbelief and soak in the horror when you’re really hoping everyone on board will get killed by Calvin.
And that leads to the second major issue of the film aside from the crew’s stupidity: Calvin. You can’t referto your alien by a human name and hope to evoke the same sense of terror as nameless monsters like The Predator, The Xenomorph or The Terminator. Those villains were great because they operated on nothing more than a basic but fierce instinct to kill. Sarah Connor couldn’t sit down for coffee with the Terminator and convince it to see her side of things. But with Calvin, we’re supposed to believe this smiley, fish-like alien is smart enough to pilot an escape pod to earth, but just can’t quite figure out how to explain why it hates us so darn much.
Let’s say you’re a big Hollywood studio mogul and I’m a screenwriter or director pitching you this movie. The whole pitch for my film is “Alien, but the Alien wins.” You’re intrigued and ask for more plot details and the title of the movie. I wasn’t too prepared for this conversation, so I just say the first word that comes to my mind, “Life,” and then make some shit up off the top of my head like a student winging a class presentation. “Wow this sounds incredible and deep!” you think to yourself as you offer to buy my script right then and there in the room. I tell you I left it at home and will send it tomorrow, and spend the next 28 hours typing whatever nonsense I can think of on the page, just to get to that conclusion of the alien winning. You take a look at the script, read that one of the character’s makes a sarcastic remark, and then immediately picture Ryan Reynolds in that role.
I imagine this scenario isn’t too far from the reality of how “Life” came to be. Sadly, in the fact and fiction scenarios of how “Life” came to be, the audience still loses both times around.