Recently, I’ve noticed a trend where film buffs have been compiling lists of their favorite films for every year they were alive. So, I took it upon myself to have a little fun and do one myself. My caveat to the list was I was going to do my favorite horror film for every year since my birth. I was born in 1985 and pretty much every year was a struggle to pick a favorite (I mean, 1987 was packed to the gills with great stuff). I attended my fair share of movies over the years, mostly with my uncle who loved horror as much as I did (he was my gateway to the whole thing), my first theatrical horror film being Rachel Talalay’s GHOST IN THE MACHINE.
When I got to 1997, I realized that I was in big trouble. I couldn’t pick a favorite, because I’d seen ten of them in theaters (Event Horizon, being my favorite of that year, for what it’s worth). But it brought about a curious feeling, especially paired with seeing LIFE. That distinct feeling of, “I’ve seen this before.”
And I had seen LIFE before. Simply because it’s the best modern day throwback to the 90’s sci-fi horror film that I grew up watching. Stuff like THE RELIC or DEEP RISING. A big-budget movie with genre trappings, but with the spirit of a low-budget monster mash you’d see at your local video store. We had it so good then, because nowadays if you want to see a fun, gory monster movie you’re stuff with not-good schlock on SyFy or better off watching something classic like C.H.U.D or ALLIGATOR.
And for most of its runtime, that’s the mindset LIFE operates in. This is not a bad thing by any means. It’s a perfect Saturday movie, sitting alone in a darkened theater, popping popcorn in your mouth like you’re a Michael Jackson meme. It’s an interstellar slasher movie with a more recognizable cast than most films have. It’s easy for people to say that the stars in this film are punching below their weight class, but they aren’t. Oscar-winning actors have starred in monster movies all the time (Hell, keeping my ’90s theme, Mira Sorvino was in Guillermo Del Toro’s fantastic MIMIC in 1997, after her win for MIGHTY APHRODITE). What casting people like Jake Gyllenhaal or Ryan Reynolds does is, it gets asses in seats and lets someone like myself sit back and enjoy a fun little monster movie.
The effects in zero-gravity are pretty solid, especially compared to the zero-gravity stuff in EVENT HORIZON some twenty years ago. Blood, sweat and tears float by you as our astronauts struggle to survive. Overall, it’s a well-made film, the camera floating about for the entirety of the film, including an opening tracking shot that’s well choreographed (think SNAKE EYES), and the actors are well-directed by Daniel Espinosa. You get a sense of the geography of the station, and where actors are in relation to each other, rather than you not being able to map out where someone is in any given scene (the effects lend to the mapping) and this also goes towards the attack scenes which aren’t just choppily edited scenes that are far too dark to see what’s happening.
The characters aren’t your typical cannon-fodder, they’re smart (the astronauts are mostly comprised of doctors), and fully capable of fighting Calvin, the monster that’s picking them off one by one. They have small, sketched backstories some of which make you truly care when they die. And when they die, it’s grisly and unforgiving. The movie loves to make you feel their plight, but it’s also more than happy to kill them off in uncomfortable and bloody ways. It doesn’t care if you do like them, they’re going to die. Two deaths in particular made me cringe, they involve drowning and choking (scenes that made me cringe and twitch in my seat).
The script doesn’t provide you with a whole lot of intellectual stimulation, beyond scientists poking and prodding at Calvin until he goes full bore monster, and while I don’t always need science speak clogging down a movie, you tend to sometimes want more from a movie. For example, Weir’s explanation in EVENT HORIZON on how the gravity drive works on the spaceship. It’s simple, streamlined and efficient. There could have been more to explaining what Calvin is, other than floaty, flower monster. But even then, you could run into a “HOLLOW MAN situation,” where you have intelligent, science speak and great graphics and then turn your movie into a “murder-death-kill” scenario in act three. LIFE is less funny than you’d expect it to be, especially coming from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the writers behind the smash hits ZOMBIELAND and DEADPOOL, but Reynolds gets in some choice zingers, including hooray for me, a RE-ANIMATOR joke.
The ending, which I won’t spoil for you, is pretty brilliant. I actually laughed in my screening (softly, though, I’m not a dick), not because the ending is terrible (it isn’t), but rather because the filmmakers had the audacity to do such a clever ending. It calls to mind another film, ARRIVAL, using how we view films, and how the visual shorthand gives us something different than what’s actually happening. It definitely keeps to the tone of downbeat ending and the film is all the more great for it.
What bums me out, and this has nothing to do with the film, is that it’s not performing that stellar at the box-office. It could be that it was put out on a weekend with especially top-loaded films like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and POWER RANGERS. It could’ve been marketed better. I saw the trailer and knew it’d be a space horror movie, but the poster –
— looks like some sci-fi movie from the 2000s that would’ve underwhelmed the audience, like THE ONE or THE 6th DAY. Now, it’s unfortunately content to be relegated to the watchers at home where no can hear you scream while you stream. Sadly, the screening I went to (a Saturday at one in the afternoon), was all but empty. It’s better to see theatrically, because the sound design is particularly bone-crunching and the score just sounds all that sweeter.
LIFE is a freaky, fascinating film that works on a B-movie level stuck to a triple-A budget. It will satisfy audiences, genre fans or no. It’s much better than you think, and it’s easy enough to digest (it moves fast) with an ending that’ll leave you with a smile on your face. Just keep in mind when you’re watching it, you’re viewing a horror/sci-fi VHS from a couple of decades ago that came out in the wrong year.
Tags: Aliens, Ariyon Bakare, Astronauts, Daniel Espinosa, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jon Ekstrand, Mars, Olga Dihovichnaya, Paul Wernick, Rebecca Ferguson, Rhett Reese, Ryan Reynolds, Seamus McGarvey, Space