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Life is like a lot of other sci-fi movies — but how it differs is telling

It’s certainly descended from Alien, but the movie’s mood is distinctly 2017.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds in Life
Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds in Life
Columbia Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Purposely claustrophobic and distinctly pessimistic, Life is a story of hope gone horribly awry. It starts as science fiction, but quickly slides down a dread-slicked slope toward the realm of disaster film, inflected by horror.

That’s hardly unusual for sci-fi, which often draws on the innate terror of outer space’s vast emptiness, perhaps most notably in Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien. And Life has garnered a lot of comparisons to Alien — not without reason, since it’s obviously borrowing story beats and concepts from that film. It’s also about astronauts on a science-related mission trapped on a spaceship with an alien that likes to envelop and invade its prey. They sleep in pods that are more practical versions of Alien’s sleep pods. There are jump-worthy moments and twists and anxiety to spare. Even the alien’s design seems familiar.

The parallels are so striking, in fact, that it seems like screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who, perhaps significantly, wrote Deadpool) know exactly what they’re trying to do: play with and subvert the recent trend toward “inspiring” science fiction.

Alien launched a whole genre of imitators (and sequels and prequels), some better than others. Life knows it’s an Alien descendent, too, albeit indirectly. But it also knows it’s a film in 2017, when the trend in big-budget sci-fi has been toward positive and hopeful arcs. Life has a different path in mind.

Life’s story is familiar: a spaceship’s crew gets curious, and that’s their downfall

A six-person crew aboard the Pilgrim 7 mission are delighted to finally receive samples of dust and debris from Mars’s surface. And to their great joy, one of those samples contains — you guessed it — life, in the form of an amoeba-like creature that resembles some life on Earth, and yet doesn’t at all.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life
Jake Gyllenhaal in Life.

That creature is a fascinating life form that an elementary school back on Earth, tasked with naming the discovery, dubs “Calvin.” And for a while, life on the station is made much more exciting by Calvin’s presence. Scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) gets to hang out in the lab observing and testing Calvin. The others — Rory (Ryan Reynolds), David (Jake Gyllenhaal), Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), and commander Ekaterina (Olga Dihovichnaya) hover, literally (this is space), near the lab windows, asking questions and watching. Meanwhile, Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada) is distracted a bit by the impending birth of his baby daughter back on Earth.

The crew answers questions from kids back on Earth and talks a little about their lives — David has been up in the space station for so long that his health is beginning to suffer, but he likes it up there, compared to the horrors of war he experienced as a soldier; and Hugh, who is wheelchair-bound in Earth’s gravity, moves freely up in space.

But for the most part their excitement at having found incontrovertible evidence of life beyond Earth rules their days for a few weeks. Calvin keeps growing and changing, looking a bit like a flat, clear, veiny starfish. Then one day they decide to see what Calvin will do when shocked lightly with electricity.

The answer: nothing good.

It’s easy enough to guess the outline of what comes next, and Life renders it as visceral horror, the title seeming more and more ironic as the film progresses.

Life quietly critiques more optimistic sci-fi of the recent past

Life’s smartest story move is to mostly avoid the conventional choices most Hollywood movies go for at every story beat. The ship is creakier and less fanciful than the sleek vessels most sci-fi movies give us today. There are very few sweeping shots of a rising Earth or breathtaking vistas; most of the glimpses of the space outside the ship are cropped and abbreviated.

Perhaps most telling: It’s in (gasp) 2-D.

Ariyon Bakare in Life
Ariyon Bakare in Life.

We also get the barest of backstories for most of the crew (and for a few of them, none at all), which means there’s less opportunity for sentimentality than another film might have attempted. The film does concede to some of expected plot devices intended to make viewers care about a character — past trauma, family back on Earth — but ultimately thwarts our expectations about what will happen to those characters.

There are a few moments in Life that veer into sentimentality, feeling like they’re dropped in from a different movie — most notably, a scene in which David snatches a copy of Goodnight Moon that’s floating around the ship after being given to Sho for his newborn daughter back on Earth. As he and Miranda look out a window at Earth and the ship, David begins reading the book aloud to Miranda before he breaks down — and then has a revelation about how to rectify at least some of the situation.

But nothing really turns out the way the movie primes us to expect. Life feels like a movie that’s tired of the optimism of recent space-set films — The Martian, Gravity, even Interstellar — which tend to conclude that love and cooperation are the key to humanity’s survival.

Hiroyuki Sanada in Life
Hiroyuki Sanada in Life.

Life is much more deterministic. It’s not that Calvin hates them, the crew realizes, but that his survival as a species depends on their destruction. It’s fated, in a way. (It’s never mere coincidence when a movie character shares a name with the theologian of predestination.)

Life starts out as one of those hopeful-seeming films, but in thwarting our expectations, it becomes much more dismal — and we realize that it was never really making a point about life so much as the folly of optimism. Life is fragile. The universe is cruel. Love, courage, and heroism might not be enough to save the human race. And no sci-fi film is going to change that.

Life opens in theaters on March 23.

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