"Life" didn't find a way
There’s not a perfect formula for making a science fiction movie (nor should there be), but the genre usually seeks to tell us something about ourselves while using creatures very unlike us. “Alien” reveals our greatest fear: ourselves (and each other) by putting a group of humans far into the outer reaches of space with a monster bursting from our own chests.
Sure, the imagery is horrific, and nobody accuses Ridley Scott of subtlety, but it works. Subsequent films lost a bit of the philosophical edge the first one found, and recent attempts to reel that in have been less than successful. “Prometheus” badly wanted to say something about human nature and our relationship with God (big G, I think), but instead devolved into a rapey, torture flick. Just ... take my word for it if you're on the fence.
So too does “Life,” a film that does not directly tie into the “Alien” franchise, but resembles it so greatly it might get sued for copyright infringement. Featuring some heavy hitters in the cast, but clearly not in the writer’s room, “Life” falls into many of the same pitfalls that the “Alien” sequels did: It says little with the tone of a much more intelligent thought.
That’s not a new problem in the “royally f*cked in space” genre. A few lines are bandied about relating to what the discovery of sentient alien life could mean for Earth, and for humanity as a species, but there’s not much zest to it. Who cares, right? We already know what’s going to happen next, so let’s cut to the chase: We’re in it for the horror, not for the platitudes and clunky dialogue.
But that doesn’t work for a film like this, and it hasn’t worked for any recently Scott-directed “Alien” film, either. Without putting in effort to craft the dynamite, the audience becomes less interested when the fuse is finally extinguished. That’s not to say the action isn’t horrific, but the ole Stephen King move of, “go for the gross out” isn’t going to cut it if you spend the first 30 minutes of your movie pretending you’re making art house cinema.
There’s something to be said for knowing what film you’re making. If you walk onto a set knowing you’re making a bad film about aliens killing people, at least you’ll save your audience the boredom of meaningless exposition about the wonder of human existence.
At the same time, if opening a meaningful dialogue about our place in the universe is more up your alley, what director Daniel Espinosa gave us in “Life” won’t cut it. Imagine living in 2017 and thinking a film about meeting a hostile alien with the kicker, “things aren’t always what they seem” is a novel idea. I hope Espinosa got a great deal on the rock he sold before making this film. He must have been living under it for a long, long time.