Life: First contact goes south

Photo courtesy of Skydance Media/Columbia Pictures

8 Creepy Tentacle Monsters out of 10

I went into “Life” hoping for a classic claustrophobic sci-fi horror in the vein of the original “Alien,” and I left the theater largely satisfied. The film is shot efficiently with good visual effects, the plot pushes interesting philosophical questions, and the alien is well, alien. My only real gripe is that about half way through the creature stops being an unknown entity and that really detracts from the terror it should cause.

“Life” opens very efficiently, quickly establishing both its setting and cast while thrusting its audience into the plot. It’s a tense, engaging portion of the film that sets it off to a great start and really highlights one of the strengths of the film. Life has great cast, even ignoring the standouts like Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds. It’s necessary for them to feel like people otherwise they just become unengaging cannon fodder for the monster. They’re able to bring a lot of personality and likability to characters that very easily could have otherwise been boring, especially with the large amount of exposition in the film. Reynolds is a standout in that regard, but the film takes the time to develop all of its cast. Between committing really the whole first half of the film to developing its characters, and the fact that that character development is efficient, “Life” does a great job with its great cast. And to be honest, it’s actually a nice change of pace to see a horror movie with intelligent selfless professionals rounding out the characters. There wasn’t a moment where a character made a decision I didn’t understand or acted entirely in self-interest to the detriment of everyone around them. As a viewer those are incredibly jarring moments for my engagement in the film and their absence is a great step forward for the film.

One of the basic building blocks of horror is the unknown. The sound of something scratching at the door, the dark shape moving through shadows, these are classic situation in horror because they suggest something malevolent without showing it. They allow the human imagination to do the work for them, to create a monstrosity more personal and horrifying than anything a filmmaker could create. Unfortunately for “Life,” this fundamental concept of horror is mostly gone for the entire second half of the film. The monster in “Life” has as much, if not more, screen time than any other character in the film. It’s kind of inherent of its plot and they do attempt to offset it by having the creature constantly grow and change. That works for the first half of the film, but halfway through it arrives at its final form (which is the least Alien looking), and you’re simply able to become familiar with it and what it can do. It weakens a lot of scenes later in the film and it’s a big part of why I think the film is at its worst when it gets to the point where the monster is just picking people off.