A crew of astronauts faces a first-encounter scenario with a hostile alien life-form, which picks them off one by one.
Sounds familiar? Let's get right to it: it's impossible to discuss this without mentioning Alien (so SPOILERS for that film as well), because Daniel Espinosa' movie borrows so heavily from Ridley Scott's classic that it becomes the proverbial elephant (er, xenomorph?) in the room.
Alien is a milestone of horror/science-fiction where every element – Scott's elegant direction, O'Bannon's taut script, solid performances, phenomenal creature and set design – worked together to create a masterpiece of cinematic dread. It may not be a pleasant watching experience – it's an oppressive, nightmarish film, unlike James Cameron less disturbing but breezier sequel – but it's up there in any serious Top 100 movie list.
How does Life fare against the 1979 titan? Well, Alien is obviously light years above it, but Life does not embarrass itself either. It's better than Prometheus, which was much more ambitious and therefore more awkward in its failure.
Life is... passable. The first forty minutes or so are actually excellent, with an effective build-up of tension as the scientists retrieve samples from Mars' soil and study a fast-growing organism (which they name "Calvin") found in it. Direction, production values, performances and characterization are all above adequate; incidentally, Ariyon Bakare's paraplegic biologist, who sees all his dreams come true before they blow up in his face, would have been a more interesting main character. Also, I would pay money to listen to Rebecca Ferguson read aloud even a History of Fourteenth Century Clavichords.
Then the movie degenerates to an extent. Why is that?
Again, Alien is the key to understand this. Less is more. We see way too much of starfish/octopus-like Calvin once its killing spree begins. When re-watching Alien, it's striking how little we see of the Xenomorph after the chest-bursting scene. I don't think its various on-screen appearances last more than a minute until the climax, and, with one exception and a deleted scene, we never see what he does to its victims. In Life, Calvin keeps bouncing around like an evil CGI rubber ball, dispatching characters in gruesome detail (also, it grows a cobra-like mug to grin at its preys, which was a really silly design choice). As a result, it's far less creepy.
Also less creepy is the location, although that was an inevitable problem once you go for the modern day setting, with a realistically cramped space station. Alien's colossal Nostromo was a haunted house in space, with plenty of dark rooms to explore and darker corridors for the creature to crawl in.
But the real horror of Alien was how it implied a Lovecraftian universe full of mysterious threats well beyond mankind's understanding (that was before Prometheus came out and started putting tags on them, thanks a lot). Here everything is neatly explained and spelled out. That's the organism which caused mass extinction on Mars, a nasty bugger which eats everything, is nearly invulnerable and as smart as the plot needs it to be.
Speaking of that, it's amusing in a meta kind of way how Life follows the tone of Alien's original ending (when the script was still called Star Beast), complete with Diabolus Ex Machina. Watching Life, it's clear the choice to tone down the Xenomorph's powers at the end of Alien was a smart one - unlike Calvin here, who instantly knows how every piece of machinery works, much like the genius sharks in Deep Blue Sea. It may be intelligent, but intelligence doesn't work like that; a space octopus which two hours ago was no bigger than an Escherichia Coli cannot simply glance at the cockpit of a spaceship and know how to pilot it, sorry.
While I can appreciate a dark twist as much as any horror fan, I appreciate it more when it feels a little less contrived and smugly "wah-wah!" - something more creepily ambiguous, like in Carpenter's The Thing, which remains the gold standard for this kind of endings.
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