In the opening sequence of the sci-fi thriller Life, a returning Martian probe docks with the international space station, and the crew expresses excitement in mission code.
“Pilgrim has landed on Plymouth Rock!”
Great news, unless you’re an Indian.
In which case, you might view with suspicion revelations that the probe has returned with some new form of life — a single cell that grows rapidly in the space station lab, astonishing the crew, and also the moviegoer.
We are astonished that this movie, which so flagrantly draws from Alien, is full of people who have apparently never seen it. The movie is set in the near future, so how is that possible? There are like 10 Alien movies now. There’s another one coming in a month.
Yet all aboard proceed as if the nurturing of this new life-form is all good.
“It’s beautiful!” says the mission scientist (Ariyon Bakare).
No, it’s not. The first thing it does in its petri dish is grow a little arm and start grabbing at his finger.
“We’re going to keep it up here and study it where it’s safe,” assures the resident astrojock (Ryan Reynolds).
No, you’re not. In fact, it will study you, identifying and exploiting weaknesses, picking you off one by one.
OK, so we know how this plays out, and somewhere deep within our movie subconscious, we even want it to, despite what the mopey astronaut (Jake Gyllenhaal) says later in the movie.
“It’s hard to watch people die.”
Not in this case. Director Daniel Espinosa establishes the right mood of vise-tightening claustrophobia, and understands pacing. Life moves briskly along, sometimes at the expense of logic. Great care, for instance, is taken to show how the crew (Rebecca Ferguson, Olga Dihovichnaya, Hiroyuki Sanada) evade the creature by retreating to safe compartments, only to have the creature pop up in their midst, its presence unexplained.
The creature itself is a fun movie object. Sticky, rubbery, strong. Once it gets on you, it won’t come off. The more people it kills, the bigger it grows (the blob!). The more it grows, the more it starts to display familiar shapes — the grabby arms and swimming motion of a squid. It gradually takes on the profile of a flying insect and, ultimately, a face that will ring a bell with Ridley Scott.
Life, though, has a cheesiness that is also sticky, rubbery, strong and won’t come off. It’s at odds with the mood of seriousness invoked by Gyllenhaal’s lugubrious character, who at one point is called upon to give what is meant to be a deeply emotional reading of — no kidding — Goodnight Moon.
It’s too late for that.
Goodnight logic, goodnight plot.
Goodnight new ideas, which you ain’t got.