Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien is a masterpiece in part because of its gorgeously grungy ugliness. That ugliness is most famously embodied in the grotesque oozing alien itself: the leathery egg sacks shrouded in mist; the starfish face hugger; the full grown alien dripping saliva and slime as its mouth opens to reveal a smaller, hissing mouth inside. But the messiness also extends to the humans. The spaceship Nostromo looks like a run-down boiler room, covered in grit and rust. The humans themselves are a cranky, shuffling lot, dressed in utilitarian coveralls, smoking cigarettes and griping about pay. Trembling Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), vacillating captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt); insouciant Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), malevolent cold-fish science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and of course the lanky, perpetually half-exasperated Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) are all as tactile and mottled as the alien itself. That’s the brilliance of the film: Its humans live before they die.
Daniel Espinosa’s new film, Life, copies the Alien body but leaves out the grimy soul. It’s set in a near future on the international space station in earth orbit, and the protagonists are not resentful, working-class schlubs but eager, well-washed professionals, performing their duties with efficiency and good fellowship. They all believe in their mission of examining the living samples brought to them from Mars, they’re all willing to sacrifice themselves for their teammates and earth.
They are all, also, and not coincidentally, boring. Our supposed hero—nerdy, shy Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal)—has the charisma of a lightly stunned flounder. The tentacular alien, incongruously dubbed Calvin, doesn’t have the visceral tactile repulsiveness of its cousin from Alien. Even so, as the one clear personality on screen, you kind of root for it, and it’s hard to say whether the twist shocker conclusion is supposed to be happy or grim.
Whichever side you’re on, one thing is certain: in *Life,* there are two sides. A big part of the horror of Alien was that the boundary between the humans and the other things was porous. In the earlier film, the company which owns the Nostromo is, unbeknownst to the crew, hoping to bring back alien DNA for industrial weapons purposes. Humans and aliens are conspiring together with the creepy android Ash, who admires the alien’s “perfection” and tries to kill the crew on his slimy allies’ behalf before being beheaded and spurting alien-like gouts of milky fluid. The aliens’ relationship with the humans is so close that they essentially have sex—a face hugger planting its progeny in Kane (John Hurt) to set up the iconic bloody male-pregnancy stomach eruption scene. In all its ichor and malevolence and perversion, the alien comes out of us.
Life is a lot more persnickety about patrolling its borders. The one pregnancy shown is a normal, happy event: One of the astronaut’s wife has a baby back home while the father, Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), follows along on his tablet from space. Humans give birth to humans; reproduction is a contrast to the horror rather than a part of it. Similarly, when the alien gets inside someone’s mouth, it doesn’t incorporate them into its Lifecycle; it just kills them.
In Alien, quarantine protocols are mentioned quickly by Ripley and then quickly violated by everyone else; grunts can’t be bothered to follow the distant dictates of an indifferent regulator, and Ash is on the alien’s side anyway. In Life, though, quarantine isn’t a joke; it’s practically the the entire point of the film. The tiny single-celled creature from Mars grows and breaks out of its sealed test environment and then out of the lab, breaching multiple “firewalls” as the desperate astronauts try to lock the airlocks, bar the doors and seal it back up. Heroic and self-sacrificing, everyone on the space station agrees that death is better than contamination.
In Alien the most memorable horror moments are the squishy, oozing moments of terrifying intimacy—the alien fusing to the human face, or coming out of the human stomach. In Life, the set-pieces are all about preserving the thin line between human and nightmare not-human. Perhaps the best scene of the film is an early sequence in which the (at that point tiny) alien grapples with a scientist’s hand through his protective glove, slowly crushing bone despite the sterile separation. In a later incident, when Calvin is much, much bigger, a crewmember seals himself in a narrow transparent compartment as the alien crawls over it, its face inches from his as it tries to break in. The thing out there is going to break in, possibly to earth itself. It’s up to the thin line of astronauts to seal it off, and protect us all.
Alien, filmed within memory of the Vietnam War, drips with distrust of authority and with skepticism about exploration and expansion. The company sends the Nostromo crew out to humiliating, despicable death for its own obscure reasons; even Mother, their onboard computer, doesn’t really care about protecting them. Life, in contrast, worries that the military and the scientists and the experts can’t keep us safe, but it never doubts their motives.
If Alien is a grubby parable about the messy motivations and consequences of imperialism, Life expresses a Trump-era anxiety about purity. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) dreams that the immigrant from Mars will contribute valuable knowledge and skills, advancing stem cell research or even revealing the meaning of Life. Alas, he is misguided; the alien invader is both entirely other and entirely malevolent. The harmonious multinational crew suggests that countries can, perhaps, work together—as long as they’re working together to keep borders intact.
If you like slashers and space horror, Life is a diverting film. The violence escalates with invention. Irritatingly perfect and bland people are killed in a variety of horrible and memorable ways. The gruesome death via alien ingestion of Rory, played by Ryan Reynolds doing his usual raffish jokester maverick schtick, is particularly satisfying. As a homage to Alien, Life is adequate. But if you’re going to come tearing out of the belly of that hideous predecessor, you should really be coated in a bit more muck.