Life follows a group of astronauts that begin studying a lifeform found dormant in Mars soil samples. What begins as a sophisticated single cell quickly begins to change and grow into a powerful and lethal organism. The crew must contain or kill the creature to save their own lives, and possibly the lives of every organism on Earth.
When it comes down to scifi-horror, there is no definitive amount of information that must be explained about the situation the astronauts and/or scientists find themselves in. In the great films of this sub genre, the balance of explained versus unexplained is perfect. Sadly, it varies from film to film, so it's hard to call out a film for not enough information, only to turn around and condemn a film for too much. Despite this conundrum, I have to judge Life on its lack of satisfying analysis of the alien creature in question, particularly because the creature seems to break the rules written for it early on.
Perhaps the most puzzling and irritating contradiction of the creature is its metabolic/developmental rate and its consumption methods and/or habits. We are first introduced to the "eating" habits of the creature when it consumes a mouse. And by consume I mean virtually liquefy and obliterate the rodent until it is completely absorbed by the alien. This, of course, makes the alien grow. Yet, as the film progresses and our alien seeks to satisfy its appetite with humans, we get contradictory results...Firstly, the alien doesn't seem interested in consuming all of a human, failing to take advantage of the nutrients provided. Secondly, the alien's growth seems to be suddenly stunted after reaching a size I would label "just shy of intimidating" on the fear-o-meter. The argument could be made "well, we don't know the natural size limit of the creature", which is true, but the plot implies multiple times that this thing behaves a lot like the Blob, and it doesn't stop growing as long as it's eating, which it always seems to want to do. Yet, at some point, the alien decides it needs to watch its figure and cuts back on how much it consumes and how much it grows.
Another contradiction of the alien's design, in my opinion, is the intelligence. We are led to believe that the alien's anatomy is based around a single super-cell, and the replication of that cell. This "super-cell" is all-things-in-one. Nervous system, muscle, digestion, etc. Now, I'm no neuro-scientist or something...but a standalone nervous system does not a brain make. I love the concept of an organism becoming the dominant lifeform by means of simplicity. It combines its complexities into a single resilient cell that replicates to grow the whole organism based on the nutritional availability of the environment. That has endless possibilities of a scientific game of cat and mouse, as the astronauts would have to determine the strengths and weaknesses, which would be drastic in both directions due its powerful but narrow evolutionary progression. In other words, they'd have to out-smart the organism even though it's not technically smart, it's just a perfectly-oiled survival machine.
But back to the intelligence and off my soap box...The film does technically follow this model, but unfortunately the movie's path is inconsistent. One minute the alien is nothing more than an elaborate network of nerves, the next minute it exploits human technology and anatomy. Then it goes back to behaving like a moth to a flame, then a reversal again to seemingly full-awareness of the circumstances. It's confusing, and it butchers the alien's design.
There are generally two ways to approach films like this...Focus on the story/characters and use the circumstance/creature as a vehicle to push the dramatic elements, or, make the cast secondary and focus on a unique, in-depth approach to the discovery, analysis, and inevitable conflict with the circumstance or creature. Life suffers to find any proper balance between these two principles. It has moments where we see some interesting character developments, but none of them ever come to any emotional or dramatic fruition, partially from bland writing, but also from dead-pan acting. On the other side, we get glimpses of what the creature is capable of, but its innate dread exponentially declines after the first admittedly intense kill. Basically, it looked like the film was building to something grand, but then it just plateaus and gradually dies in all characteristics of good cinema. And it was sad.
I will give the film credit for tackling the concept of astronauts/scientists in abnormal circumstances with a foundation of realism that is all-too-uncommon in similar films. Scientists generally make terrible decisions and at least half of them panic and have mental breakdowns. In this film, we only get two such moves, and they are quickly and thoroughly punished for it. And all of the scientists maintain a sense of calm and understanding of the situation. Protocol is understood and followed, even at the detriment of themselves, as long as Earth remains safe. This is a breath of fresh air and a rarity in films of a similar ilk. So if I could walk away giving this film any silver lining, it is definitely this commendation.
Horror Qualifier: 8/10
Horror Quality: 4/10
Film Quality: 4/10