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Life

It seemed like we were on a pretty good roll. We had The Martian, we had Hidden Figures, we had Arrival and Tomorrowland, we had Gravity and Big Hero 6… I’m sure I’m forgetting a few. The point is that we’ve been seeing all these many and varied films made in the past few years to inspire a love of science. These were movies all about humanity as a whole coming together across all sociopolitical differences to solve problems and advance our understanding of the cosmos.

Then came the unfortunate critical and commercial tanking of The Space Between Us, and I started to worry. Especially when it would be so soon followed by this picture.

I was disheartened by the trailers for Life, which showed the basic premise of astronauts stuck with an alien organism out in space, like we’ve never seen that one before. We’ve got Alien: Covenant coming out in two months, for God’s sake. Still, this might have been something worthwhile if it came with a “hard science fiction” hook, like this was done with an eye toward being as faithful and realistic to actual science as possible. But again, the trailers dashed those hopes.

See, this might come as a shock, but it’s actually REALLY, REALLY HARD to become an astronaut. Anyone who gets sent up in space has to go through years of training, and they have to prove themselves capable of working as an effective and cool-headed team in the most terrifying scenarios possible. The Martian understood this in a way that Interstellar (Matt Damon’s mental breakdown) and Gravity (Sandra Bullock going suicidal, and getting sent up there after only a few months of training) did not.

And the trailers for Life showed us astronauts screaming at each other, going completely crazy, acting in ways that would get any real astronaut killed. Clearly, the “hard science fiction” angle wasn’t going to work.

The movie looked like an utter wreck, but the reviews so far have been surprisingly good. Maybe it was better than the trailers suggested? Sadly, no.

I will gladly grant that it’s a beautiful-looking film, with wonderful production design and some dazzling camera work. The film makes a strong impression early on, opening with a single unbroken shot that goes on for nine solid minutes. Plus, the whole film takes place in zero-gravity, and that’s delivered surprisingly well.

Unfortunately, it all falls apart upon the realization that our victim pool is comprised of six idiots who can always be counted upon to make the dumbest and most rash decision possible. How this ruins the film, let me count the ways.

Firstly, all character development is shot to hell as they’re all reduced to screaming, flailing wrecks. Secondly, all sympathy is ruined for these characters because it’s hard to empathize with “trained professionals” when they act like self-destructive imbeciles. Thirdly, all tension is gone because we know the next one to charge in and do something asinine will also be the next one to die. Fourthly, there’s no possible way to take this film seriously as an intelligent work of science fiction when the plot and the characters are this dumb. Seriously, even in those occasions when the characters do the smart thing, the plot has to bend itself in so many contrived ways that call attention to how thin and brainless the story is.

It’s incredible how this stupid monster slasher tries to pass itself off as a work of intelligent sci-fi and fails so terribly. A lot of that has to do with the slower moments, in which the cast has to lean on pretentious line delivery to provide the illusion of thematic depth where none exists. I can kinda sorta see how the film works as a “Frankenstein” allegory about the dangers of science, the hubris of mankind, the risks involved in new discoveries, and so on. But all of that was done far better in millions of other stories, and why would we even be talking about that when the film is trying to imitate other movies that encourage scientific endeavors?

Yet the movie does show some shred of genuine passion for real-life science. This is mostly conveyed early on, as our cast is shown taking questions from grade-school kids over Skype. Granted, it says a lot about the filmmakers, how they feel the need to explain the ISS and space travel in terms that are literally simple enough for a child to understand. Additionally, when the filmmakers talk about the ISS like a huge technological marvel right before they wantonly destroy it for our enjoyment of collateral damage, that doesn’t exactly come off as the most sincere statement.

So if this doesn’t work as an intelligent and inspirational movie about science, does it work as a monster horror film at least? Well, the creature does admittedly look pretty cool, and there are a couple of pretty gruesome kills. The problem is the kills aren’t bloody enough, inventive enough, frequent enough, shocking enough, or fun enough to work as the hook for a movie. Moreover, none of the characters were so actively horrible that I got any enjoyment out of watching them die.

Quite the contrary, the characters are all so unremarkable and unsympathetic in such a way that I really didn’t care if any particular one made it out alive. Plus — as previously mentioned — we already know that the next character who actively decides to charge ahead will be the next one to die in a couple of minutes, so we know that the kill is coming. And even if the claustrophobic setting is a horror classic for a reason, the fact remains that it’s a horror classic we’ve seen a million times before, and being appropriately scared of something we’ve already seen a million times before is a tall order.

So basically, the scares are all so predictable and the victim pool is so unremarkable that the characters got killed off and I felt nothing. I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the name actors was killed off so early, but that’s as shocked as I ever got.

Life is simply tedious. It’s too boring to work as a horror film, it’s too stupid to work as a work of intelligent sci-fi, and it’s too derivative to offer anything new. I think that this was meant to be a horror film (because only a horror film could get away with that “fuck you” ending), but somebody somewhere along the way decided “Let’s be like Gravity!” and the whole thing fell apart.

Everything this film attempts has been done by other, far superior movies; and I’d recommend any one of them over this.

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