LIFE – Jon Ekstrand
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Life is a sci-fi action horror thriller written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and directed by Daniel Espinosa. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya, as the members of a six-person team of astronauts and scientists on board the International Space Station studying soil samples from Mars. The scientists successfully identify and re-animate a single-celled organism from within the soil, conclusively proving that life exists on Mars; back on Earth, the schoolchildren of a high school in the United States name the creature ‘Calvin’. Time passes, and Calvin shows signs of high intelligence and awareness, but before long it also begins to show signs of aggression, putting the lives of the crew – and, potentially, the people of Earth – in great jeopardy. The film can be described as a combination of Gravity and Alien, but it’s not as good as either of them; unfortunate plot holes and some missed opportunities detract from the slickness of the production, the impressive visual scope of the cinematography, and some sincere performances, especially from Gyllenhaal and Ferguson.
The score for Life is by Swedish composer Jon Ekstrand, who previously scored some popular projects back home in Scandinavia such as the thriller Snabba Cash, and the TV series Den Fördömde, as well as the 2015 Tom Hardy/Gary Oldman thriller Child 44, all of which were also directed by Espinosa. For most people, Life will be their first exposure to Ekstrand’s music; unfortunately, for some, it may also be their last. Far too much of Life comes across like one of those dreary ‘space ambience’ scores which takes a full orchestra, including at times a choir, and a vast array of electronics, but plays the most simple, basic chord progressions, sustains, and rhythmic ideas for almost an hour, with just a few brief bombastic action sequences and moments of majesty and glory to enliven it. Even the presence of the great Nicholas Dodd as conductor and orchestrator can’t do much to make Ekstrand’s music work. It’s a shame, because the potential for excellence provided by the film is enormous, and by and large Ekstrand fails to grasp it.
The music is, essentially, a combination of two styles. The first is slow, contemplative, moody music that is clearly intended to address both the cold desolation of space, and the fascinating minutiae of scientific discovery as it relates to Calvin and his exponential growth. Unfortunately, and with just a few brief exceptions, most of it is simply not very interesting. The opening cue, “Welcome to the ISS,” features a dialogue extract of Rebecca Ferguson speaking in-character, setting up the plot of the movie, but thereafter much of the first half of the score adopts a singular style featuring synth drones, simple string sustains, soft piano chords, and occasional rhythmic sequences for percussion, both live and electronic.
The one or two uses of a choir, in cues like “Like a Bird” and “New Best Friends,” add a little depth and color to the music, with the latter enjoying some sweet, almost-childlike moments of choral innocence. In addition, the final 30 seconds of “Welcome to the ISS” are very pretty, while the final 30 seconds of “It’s Alive” and parts of “Care to Dance” briefly embrace horn-led warmth. However, most of the rest is inoffensively bland. Identifiable thematic content is virtually zero, and there doesn’t even appear to be a recurring motif for Calvin to announce his increasingly malevolent presence. Even the pivotal “Goodnight, Earth” cue holds back tremendously, as if it is afraid to show the audience even the merest hint of lyrical content.
The second style is made up of more brazen action and horror music but, even here, the music is fairly simple and terribly predictable. Cues like “Spacewalk,” “Thrusters,” “I Thought They Came to Rescue Us?,” and the conclusive “A Long Way Back” are energetic and noisy, but are really little more than generic string pulses, brass whole notes, and percussion slams, repeated endlessly on a loop with varying degrees of loudness and intensity. Some of the brass-led raspiness in cues like “Sprinklers” and “I Thought They Came to Rescue Us?” is intensely overwhelming, as are the forceful percussion hits in “Spacewalk,” and the guttural, brutal electronic chords in “A Long Way Back,” but the disappointing adoption of the ‘horn of doom’ in many of these cues smacks of temp-track love, and a leaf taken out of the Contemporary Thriller Scoring 101 playbook.
Meanwhile, cues like “Need a Hand?,” “Not the Face,” and “What Are You?” use basic horror movie music tropes to create suspense, with elongated string chords, little tinkling piano notes, occasional insect-like skittery effects, and a synth whine that underpins it all. “Up, Up” blends the two styles together, emerging from the soft piano chords and synth textures into more a rhythmic action sequence with enhanced brass, percussion hits, and even some anvils, and is probably the pick of the litter.
The score finally comes into its own in “Godspeed, Doctor,” which is by far the best cue on the album. Here, and only here, is where Ekstrand allows you to feel any emotional catharsis, any sense of heroism, and he accomplishes it by using bright, hopeful brass phrases and uplifting choral accents, although even here the crushing electronics, the string dissonances, and the horn of doom are never far away.
When you look back at the musical legacy of the Alien franchise – the stylistics of which Life is clearly trying to emulate – the shortcomings of the score are revealed in sharp relief. Of course, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, and Elliot Goldenthal were all masters of the craft, and such comparisons are perhaps a little unfair, but even when compared to Steven Price’s Gravity – another score with which Life shares many similarities, but this time written by a peer – the difference between it and Ekstrand’s music is like night and day; Price was more innovative with his electronic samples, used his orchestra in more creative ways, made his moments of overwhelming musical brutality interesting from a compositional point of view, and succeeded in moving the audience with his rousing, invigorating finale. I really didn’t get any of that from Life.
Perhaps worst of all is the fact that, even in the context of the film, where scores like this often work like gangbusters to ramp up the tension, Ekstrand’s music is either annoyingly overbearing or dramatically weak. The resulting aural cinematic experience unremittingly bashes you over the head in the action and horror sequences, but is then disappointingly restrained and much too understated in the emotional ones, leaving the listener and viewer frustrated from both ends.
Buy the Life soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Welcome to the ISS (4:31)
- It’s Alive (3:54)
- Like a Bird (2:10)
- Care to Dance? (1:38)
- New Best Friends (1:29)
- Need a Hand? (3:12)
- Not the Face (1:21)
- Sprinklers (4:14)
- Spacewalk (5:35)
- Thrusters (3:53)
- Up, Up (4:39)
- I Thought They Came to Rescue Us? (4:28)
- Goodnight, Earth (3:44)
- What Are You? (5:25)
- Godspeed, Doctor (5:02)
- A Long Way Back (2:39)
Running Time: 58 minutes 02 seconds
Milan Records (2017)
Music composed by Jon Ekstrand. Conducted by Nicholas Dodd. Orchestrations by Nicholas Dodd. Recorded and mixed by Jason La Rocca. Edited by Dina Eaton, Stuart Morton, Carl Sealove and Mark Jan Wlodarkiewicz. Album produced by Jon Ekstrand.