In many ways, ‘Life’ defies expectations by being exactly the kind of horror flick you think it won’t be
Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick generated a lot of positive buzz for themselves in recent years with a string of films that exceeded expectations both critically and commercially and tested some long-established boundaries in their respective genres. In both 2009’s Zombieland and last year’s Deadpool, the pair proved adept at walking the fine line between poking fun at established genres and staying true to those genres’ fundamental appeal.
And now their outer-space thriller Life hits theaters with something entirely unexpected: a surprisingly conventional, straightforward take on sci-fi horror.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa, Life reunites the filmmaker with his Safe House star Ryan Reynolds, who also headlined last year’s Deadpool for Reese and Wernick. Reynolds is joined by Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson, who lead a cast of characters portraying the crew of the International Space Station. They’re joined by actors Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya, who fill out the story’s six-person, multinational team tasked with studying an organism recovered from a Martian soil sample.
An entertaining, occasionally thrilling movie that errs on the side of playing it safe.
As anyone familiar with the genre should expect, things don’t go as planned with their investigation, and the human crew quickly find themselves fighting for their lives while trapped within the confines of their orbiting facility.
Despite Reynolds’ presence in the film and his well-established chemistry with Reese and Wernick’s humor, there are few laughs to be found in Life. It’s a significant departure from what we’ve come to expect from the pair, and might come as a bit of a surprise to anyone expecting the film to be their usual, comedic spin on genre films.
Still, once your expectations are properly adjusted, Life offers up a decent – if somewhat unspectacular – thriller, with a fair amount of scares, tension in all the necessary places, and a satisfying mix of terror tropes.
In keeping with the traditional horror-movie formula, Life only develops its characters enough to make you worry about when – not if – they’re bound to suffer their gruesome deaths. To his credit, Espinosa makes effective use of the outer-space environment the story unfolds in, amplifying both the claustrophobic potential of the space station’s cramped interior and the seemingly infinite threat of the vast, cosmic expanse just outside the walls.
As for the alien creature, the monster terrorizing the crew is a creepy mass of tentacles and vaguely defined appendages that manages to be as frightening for what you see it do as it is for what’s implied that it can do. Part murderous blob, part killer starfish, the creature doesn’t do enough to hang with Hollywood’s memorable alien antagonists, but it gets the job – bloody and violent as it is – done.
Like the movie’s monster, the human cast of the film is similarly efficient without ever really standing out.
Reynolds plays the sort of charismatic, irreverent man-child that’s become his default these days (and for good reason), while the rest of the cast comfortably slips into roles that offer just enough latitude to let the actors emote a bit and give their characters some depth before all the screaming and looking scared begins. This sort of workmanlike atmosphere doesn’t produce any truly memorable performances, but it also avoids the sort of over-reach that could make the film feel campy or less sincere than it’s intended to be.
The creature doesn’t do enough to hang with Hollywood’s memorable alien antagonists.
At its best, Life is an entirely unoffensive, entertaining thriller that maintains a good sense of momentum from start to finish, and provides some effective scares along the way, too. Unlike Reese and Wernick’s previous films, it doesn’t test the boundaries of its genre in any significant way, and opts to simply make effective use of the tropes available to it instead of prodding them with the self-awareness of a Zombieland or Deadpool.
Given the high standard set by Reese and Wernick’s recent projects and the impressive cast assembled for the film, it seems reasonable to feel a little underwhelmed by Life. By simply being good – instead of great – in just about every way, Life never quite realizes the potential of both its cast and creative team, and of its genre. The end result is an entertaining, occasionally thrilling movie that errs on the side of playing it safe and hitting all the traditional beats rather than breaking any new ground.
Anyone expecting Life to do for sci-fi horror what Zombieland did for zombie films or Deadpool did for comic-book movies will likely be a little disappointed, but audiences looking for a straightforward, one-and-done thriller can certainly do far worse than Espinosa’s outer-space creature feature.
If nothing else, Life proves that sometimes keeping things simple can be fine. Just fine.