“No new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace.”
– HP Lovecraft, “Ex Oblivione” First published in The United Amateur, 20-4 (March 1921)
It’s true what they say: “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” The 1960s and ‘70s may have been the greatest era for horror films, particularly in the US. It was an amazing two-decade period that gave us classics from Alfred Hitchcock and the grand guinol of Herschell Gordon Lewis; it’s when Spielberg showed us the terror of shark teeth and Tobe Hooper had us running from Texas chainsaws; it was when Hollywood gave us the classics of The Exorcist and Alien whilst the indie scene introduced us to Craven, Carpenter, and Cunningham. At the risk of being nostalgic for an era that predated my own existence, the impact of New Hollywood’s horror films has yet to be matched in all the years since.
Unfortunately, people took the wrong lessons from the success of those ground-breaking films. The success of the films of that era was that major studios were indiscriminately throwing their money, resources, and blind faith at bold (and, at times, untested) talent that paid back several times over. But rather than trying to find the next new talent, Hollywood just tried to repeat itself over and over again. One could argue that the indie film-boom of the ‘90s brought great new talent to the fore, but the newly-corporate Hollywood machine was only interested in that talent to the extent of the tight leashes they could put on them. And the horror genre, one already maligned by critics and social conservatives, has never seen an abundance of talent since its ‘60s/’70s heyday.
Life is to ‘70s horror what Tenacious D was to rock music of the same era: it’s not the greatest, it’s just a tribute.
The crew of the International Space Station are already celebrities, having piloted a manned space flight farther than any other human before them. That celebrity status is further cemented when one of their probes recovers an organism definitively proving the existence of life on Mars.
As a crew of scientists, they naturally try to experiment with the organism. But like all things in nature, the creature takes on a life of its own. No sooner has the crew discovered the creature than it reveals itself to be a dangerous, difficult-to-kill predator. Now the crew are trapped on station, millions of miles from help and being hunted by the deadliest lifeform known to man.
It goes without saying that this movie owes a helluva lot to Alien. I don’t just mean the basic premise, I mean the fact that many of its narrative beats are almost note-for-note recreations of Ridley Scott’s classic. (You’d think Brian de Palma directed it or something.) Of course, Alien owes a great deal to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, so maybe Scott’s film being so slavishly copied is somehow a full circle?
To Life’s credit, it rips off Alien in all the right ways: our heroes have no idea how to kill the creature, despite all their best efforts; the body count is done in a way to mostly keep you guessing (it still falls into the trap of making two purrty White folks the last survivors); and the on-screen gore is done in a way to where its creativity matches its gratuity. It’s a movie that will leave much more of a visual impression than a narrative one.
Speaking of that narrative: just as the film owes a great deal to Alien, there also nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. To once again give life credit, it stays true to its premise by providing the ending many feel those classic films should have had, but didn’t. I won’t spoil it here, but don’t go into this film expecting the words “Happily Ever After” to appear in the final frames.
Director Daniel Espinosa composes beautifully-shot gore without falling into the trap of easy jump-scares. The actors are all in fine form with their stock characters. Even another Alien rip-off, 1997’s Event Horizon, knew to get a great cast in place for what was, like this, a drive-in horror flick set amongst the stars. With that in mind, I wonder if some of screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s dialogue was intentionally bad? Other than the obligatory Ryan Reynolds ad-libs, most of the words are pretty rote. Still, there are a few instances in which the characters say lines that would trip up even the most skilled thespian. Yet even those corny lines fit in the conventions of the drive-in genre, so I’m forced to question if they were done that way on purpose?
In any case, Life is a fun way to spend a Friday night. It’s a big-budget throwback to a time when even the cheapest piece of 16mm schlock could be seen alongside cinematic masterpieces. Its reminiscent of a pre-home video era when people preferred the terror on the big screen to that which they saw on their tv screens at home. Not that we ever left the latter era (except technologically). Maybe we need a movie like Life even more than we think.