‘Life’ is gripping, efficient, but unnecessary sci-fi horror-thriller

"Life" | Columbia Pictures Grade: B
Sony Pictures/Courtesy
"Life" | Columbia Pictures
Grade: B

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In the seminal 1979 horror-thriller “Alien,” an otherworldly creature with a real vindictive streak prowls the many decks of the starship Nostromo, picking off crew members while Sigourney Weaver prowls right back with a cat under one arm and a flamethrower in the other. We don’t really stop to think about the practical considerations involved with the decision to put a flamethrower on a spaceship, mostly because it looks badass and those ends justify the means, and more importantly because, within the world that director Ridley Scott and his writers crafted, it simply doesn’t seem weird. In the context of the distant future, on a massive ship with artificial gravity, “Alien” operates on the fantasy level of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” — there’s no scientific explanation or justification required for creative decisions.

“Life,” the 2017 homage to, or perhaps rip off of, that classic film contains several textual references to “Alien,” including, you guessed it — the use of a flame thrower. There’s a problem though. “Life” is set in the present(ish) and on the International Space Station. The idea that NASA would allow anything flammable, much less a flamethrower onto the ISS is patently absurd. Then again, so is everything else in the script. The very first scene tracks a probe travelling through interplanetary space and being impacted by a swarm of dust and rock particles, which we can somehow hear along with the roar of … what, exactly? The wind? Sound doesn’t travel in space, folks. Didn’t we learn that 15 years ago with “Firefly”?

I won’t pretend that my education in astrophysics hasn’t unfairly lowered my tolerance for bad physics and unrealistic behaviors in sci-fi, but I gripe because if anything, the release of “The Martian” in 2015 has shown us that something can be accurate and entertaining — the two are not mutually exclusive. The laundry list of liberties “Life” takes with reality spans the gamut from minor physical inaccuracies to major plot developments. Director Daniel Espinosa builds a world under the guise of physical reality and NASA protocols, and then breaks or ignores the rules that that world implies.

When the alien in “Life,” named Calvin — though the name doesn’t engender much empathy — first demonstrates its hostility and tries to kill a crew member, the obvious question is, “Why don’t the astronauts just leave the ISS?” The whole station can be controlled from the ground. NASA is typically not a fan of its astronauts dying, particularly one by one and when there’s no reason for them to. The answer the script, penned by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Deadpool,” “Zombieland”), provides is murky and difficult to articulate. Something about protocol?

It’s a problem “Alien” never had. The isolation of deep space both truly trapped the crew on board and imparted onto the film a deep sense of creepiness. For a film that is, ultimately, just “let’s make ‘Alien’ with better CGI and Ryan Reynolds in it,” “Life” has introduced a surprising number of leaps of faith and belief suspensions the original never asked of its audience.

That said, if one can push one’s way through those world-building issues, “Life” has a lot going for it. It’s exactly the right length, well-paced and written with an understanding of the ebb and flow of tension and release needed to carry an audience through a horror film. And it has exactly the right amount of gore. The ending, while predictable, is an awesome sight to behold. The alien is a well constructed enemy for the crew to face, except perhaps a teensy bit too smart for a wee alien baby.

Taken in a vacuum (that’s a pun), “Life” would be pretty good. It’s a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable suspense flick. The problem is that we can’t watch it in a vacuum, and the specter of “Alien” haunts the film as much as Calvin haunts the ISS; everything in the plot unfolds with the inevitability of clockwork, with no deviations from the prescriptions Scott developed 38 years ago.

With the man himself still helming the “Alien” franchise — “Alien: Covenant” releases this May and looks to be an absolute banger — one wonders why a rehash of the original was necessary. “Life” is great, until you watch the trailer for “Covenant” and realize that even the trailer for it is almost more entertaining than “Life,” simply by virtue of us not knowing the whole story beforehand. Plus, it’s Ridley Scott, and, no offense to Espinosa, the former’s ability to bring an impeccable eye for atmospherics and focused visuals to the horror-thriller genre imbues his films with a feeling of “something more-ness” the latter just hasn’t achieved with this picture.

Is it unfair to spend most of a review on “Life” comparing it to other films? A little. And yet, “‘Alien,’ but worse” is an accurate and succinct summary that can be descriptive while still admitting to the enjoyability of what this film does right. Besides, I’m not the one that decided to remake “Alien” a month before the real deal. We make our beds and we lie in them.

“Life” opens today at UA Berkeley 7.

Imad Pasha covers film. Contact him at [email protected].