There are only a few requirements for a horror movie to be really good without being ironically good or campy: decent production values and acting, genuinely horrifying things happening on screen, and refraining from the ridiculous. “Life” succeeds amply in the first two categories, but face-plants in the third. How much ridiculousness it takes to ruin a film is a matter of personal taste, but some generalities are true of a whole lot of people, and “Life” checks several of those boxes.
The setup is a familiar sci-fi and horror trope: half a dozen people are trapped in a structure along with a malevolent entity that’s picking them off one by one. “Life” adds in the requirement that the protagonists have to make sure the alien doesn’t get down to the planet’s surface, so the stakes are high.
Our heroes are the residents of the International Space Station. The malevolent entity is “Calvin,” an organism retrieved from the surface of Mars by a probe that has returned to the ISS. They manage to revive the cell from dormancy, and before long it’s growing. Unfortunately, a series of decisions (ranging from believably dumb to plot-hole status) result in Calvin eating a lab rat and parts of a crew member and becoming both large and angry. It’s a tentacled and creepy looking thing, the color of a corpse washed up on a beach in a cop show.
The heroes try to destroy the alien before it kills them all off, coming up with some pretty decent plans that fail for pretty good reasons. It’s the setup that really has issues. These astronauts are some of the most brilliant folks from Earth, yet they make mistakes for no other reason than the plot requiring it.
Dumb decisions can be smoothed over if the rest of the film is good enough – you just have to suspend your disbelief. Unfortunately, “Life” also has one of the most basic suspension-of-disbelief killers: terrible and intrusive music. You know exactly how the filmmakers want you to feel, because the music won’t shut up about it. Grand, orchestral, and way too loud, it forcibly reminds you that you’re in a movie theater every time something intense happens. It’s not a deal-breaker for everybody, but if it is for you, stay away.
On top of that, “Life” also has an ending that was probably innovative the first time “The Twilight Zone” did it, but is now about as original as an undead arm punching up out of the serial-killer’s grave just before the credits roll.
It’s a pity, because “Life” has a number of good things going for it. The special effects range from pretty-good to excellent. The performances are solid, especially Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as the crew doctor, a man who has been in space too long and is starting to deteriorate as a result of his refusal to leave the station. The fates of the crew members are frequently graphic and creatively disgusting enough to make even this seasoned reviewer a bit queasy in spots (as befits a horror movie). Calvin is a creative take on the existing aliens from sci-fi, a constantly-evolving creature that is increasingly capable and intelligent as it grows in size.
If you don’t mind the above-mentioned issues, you’ll probably like “Life.” There’s a lot there to enjoy – provided that the problems don’t wreck it for you.