Dumb movies are everywhere, it’s a sad fact. In many cases, the box office reflects it (the recent flop known as Baywatch, for example), because the trailers are completely crap. Other terrible movies will make a pile of money theatrically because of gee-whizz CGI, like the punishing Transformers series, but those kinds of movies tap into a different kind of vibe. Sometimes people just want a burger and fries, and don’t care about the content. While the Transformers movies are not my thing, I’ve had a burger myself a time or two, so I understand the appeal. But what if you’re not trying to make $1 billion at the box office? What if you’re trying to make a horror movie to do business in the $150M – $350M range?
You might hire jake Gyllenhaal who has an impressive dramatic resume (Nocturnal Animals, Enemy) , and Ryan Reynolds who mostly just does his thing (Deadpool, The Voices), throw a chunk of money into production design and special effects, and think “job done”. Unfortunately, if you started off with a shitty screenplay you end up with poor word of mouth, bad-to-mediocre reviews, and $93M worldwide. Against a pre-advertising, pre-back end budget of $58, it’ll make a profit, but it’ll join the scrapheap of public consciousness soon enough. Why? Because Life is a movie about stupid people doing stupid things. In spaaaaaaaaaaaace.
Unfortunately, the horror genre is full of these people, thanks to the ineptitude of the screenwriting. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who have a couple of decent movies in the can already (Zombieland and Deadpool), but also GI Joe: Retaliation, Life is so awful you’d think it was written by a first timer. Here’s the plot: A spacecraft discovers signs of alien life. Unbeknownst to most of the crew, a set of protocols have been established that could render their own lives dispensible. At first the alien lifeform is tiny, but after killing a crew member, it quickly grows large and more deadly, so that the small crew is forced to take matters into their own hands, and search the ship trying to kill it, while themselves being killed off one by one. I’m kidding, right? Nope, a major studio threw money at a movie with a logline that’s almost exactly that of Alien. Even the title of the movie comes up in block capitals as L I F E – the only thing missing is the letters slowly fading in. If you’ve read my review of Harbinger Down, you’ll know I’m no fan of shameless ripoffs of other, better movies, and while my attitude to Life isn’t as scathing, viewing it did make me angry. What separates Life from other ripoffs is that all things considered it isn’t terrible in the other major areas. Daniel Espinosa directs competently enough, the acting is decent, and visually it looks good, thanks to veteran cinematographer Seamus MacGarvey (Nocturnal Animals). No, the problem with this movie is all in the script.
The story begins short and sharp, when a probe returning from Mars with a soil sample needs to be caught by one of the robotic arms on the International Space Station. Once this is done, the soil sample is studied, and contains dormant cellular life. Once subjected to less inclement atmospheric conditions, the creature, nicknamed Calvin, is dormant no more. Chaos ensues, as expected. You should feel aggrieved at the similarities to Alien, which approach plagiarism, but feel free to be stunned by the sheer stupidity exhibited by the characters, by means of Reese and Wernick. Calvin is the first example of biological life discovered outside of Earth, but as it exponentially grows, the only biologist onboard – the one studying it – seems to forget certain core principles, such as treating what is a potentially dangerous, completely unknown organism as a cute little pet. Later in the movie, this same character also fails to alert them of a situation that places the rest of his crewmates in extreme jeopardy. Other characters fall victim to mind rot at crucial points throughout the plot-driven disaster; Jake Gyllenhaal’s insistence on protocols in one scene completely contradicts an early scene featuring a character who’s body has been invaded by the organism – in that scene, Gyllanhaal’s voice is the loudest, shouting for the doors to be opened so that the crew member can possibly be saved. As well as character inconsistency, some of the gaps in logic are outrageous; at one point, the alien is shown zipping around the outside of the space station with no apparent ill effects, yet the idea of trapping it in an airless containing room is the remaining crew’s strategy?
The alien itself is almost like a Mary Sue character, now that I think of it. Completely unstoppable, uninjurable, unkillable, possessed of advanced intellect and sensory organs. What it doesn’t have is any sense of purpose or motivation, or history. It simply exists to pick off the crew members one by one. As well as having no history or context, it doesn’t really come with any sense of mystery about it, and mystery was what helped make Alien work as well as it did. There’s literally nothing in this movie to make you think about the alien, octopus-like thing as it jumps about grabbing things. The crew members do a lot of jumping around too – to a lot of conclusions about how dangerous it is, even saying it poses a threat to all life on Earth. Yet, without history, there’s no logic path to that conclusion given by the screenplay. If the creature exhibited signs of splitting into multiple versions of itself, you could say the threat comes from the fact it self-replicates like crazy – but it doesn’t. If it grew to gigantic proportion, you could say that it’s potential size is the threat – but it doesn’t. It grows rapidly, then gets to the size of a big dog, but there’s no discussion among the crew about why they think it’s this big a deal. Listen, you could put 6 adults in a confined space with a ten year old armed with a machine gun and there are going to be casualties – but the kid is not gonna take over the world. At no time during what is observable by the crew does the organism exhibit any of the qualities that lead the crew to this extreme conclusion. They do speculate that it wiped out all life on Mars, but there’s zero data about that to go off on either. These are the dumbest space guys ever.
Which makes a lot of sense, because even though the logline matches Alien, it’s almost like Reese and Wernick decided to take all the bad parts of Prometheus and somehow write a screenplay around them. The characters in Life are just about as stupid as those in Ridley Scott’s 2012 brainless dud, and their insanely awful decisions are nothing short of insulting to sit through.
© Andrew Hope, 2017