Tension cannot happen in the face of the inevitable. There must be at least a modicum of hope that something else, something good, will happen for the characters. Life deprives its audience of that tension because its characters are so clearly outmatched by the threat against their lives. While Daniel Espinosa’s sci-fi horror film stars from a reasonable place—what if smart people were faced with a hostile alien organism—the story quickly falls apart when we see that the characters are dummies and the alien is pretty much indestructible. At that point, it simply becomes a waiting game as the characters do something to stop the alien, what they try doesn’t work, another astronaut bites the dust, rinse, repeat.
The astronauts on the International Space Station have just discovered organic life from a sample recovered from Mars. The international group includes CDC representative Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), doctor David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), engineer and fix-it guy Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), pilot Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and captain Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). The organism, dubbed “Calvin”, by schoolchildren on Earth, quickly develops and is described by Hugh as “all muscle, all brain.” Calvin quickly breaks free of its enclosure, and once it escapes, it starts picking off the crew one by one.
In a better movie, we would not only care more about these six people (we get perfunctory introductions to them, but you can feel the movie straining to get to the action), but they would also be worthy adversaries against their alien attacker. The crux of Life wouldn’t just be about a fight for survival, but the pinnacle of human achievement coming up against a new lifeform. The astronauts wouldn’t just be armed with “oxygen candles” and flamethrowers; they would have the sum total of human knowledge between themselves and mission control on the ground. It could be a battle of wits with lives on the line.
As it stands, Life basically falls apart the moment the creature escapes. The astronauts outside of the laboratory shout at each other as Calvin cripples Hugh’s hand, breaks free of the enclosure, and then tries to find a way out of the quarantined lab. From this moment on, it’s clear that Calvin, a squid-like creature who continues to get bigger as the film progresses, has all the power even though it’s ostensibly up against six scientists who should be able to put their heads together and figure out how to beat it.
But because Calvin’s abilities aren’t well defined and it seems to have no limitations, Life lacks tension. In Alien, the xenomorph is terrifying and powerful but it’s not invulnerable. Additionally, it’s up against a bunch of space truckers plus it has an android that’s secretly trying to help it. The odds are stacked against the crew of the Nostromo, but not to the point where you think they’re all automatically doomed. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, and while Ripley is eventually the only survivor, the crew puts up a pretty good fight. By comparison, the crew on the ISS doesn’t have a prayer. Not only do they make bad decisions; Calvin has no weaknesses. It’s invulnerable to fire, it can survive in the vacuum of space for an indeterminate amount of time, and it’s always as smart as the situation requires.
To Espinosa’s credit, he knows how to turn the ISS into a creepy haunted house, and the design of Calvin is fairly ingenious. When the alien is crawling around the laboratory, you’ll get flashbacks to every cockroach that scuttled around your kitchen. It’s a cool creature and Espinosa uses it and the zero-G environment to make Life a unique sci-fi film. Additionally, all of the actors are just likable enough that you care about what happens to them, but unfortunately the script doesn’t give them enough to make them more than fodder for the alien. Ultimately, Life becomes a well-crafted slasher movie in space, which is fine, but it could have been so much more.