Directed by Daniel Espinosa.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, and Ariyon Bakare.
A team of scientists aboard the International Space Station whose mission of discovery turns to one of primal fear when they find a rapidly evolving life form that caused extinction on Mars, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first; no, Life is not the Venom origin story many fans are hoping it will be. It’s also inextricably indebted to Ridley Scott’s Alien throughout, which while denting much prospect of originality, does little to impact its integrity as a tripwire-tense, sharply-acted sci-fi horror romp, serving as a welcome tonic amid the recent annual onset of blockbuster bombast.
A six-member crew aboard the International Space Station (Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya) manages to capture a soil sample from Mars containing the first incontrovertible proof of life beyond Earth. The single-celled organism, named Calvin, quickly grows in size, and soon enough escapes containment, sending the crew into a frenzy as they attempt to prevent the creature from destroying the crew and, more importantly, reaching Earth.
You know the story; man meets alien, alien escapes, alien kills man, and man launches a last ditch effort to obliterate it. The only real surprise in Life‘s shell plot is how it ends – no spoilers, but it’s a doozy – yet director Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money, Safe House) nevertheless does a great job capturing the dread-soaked essence of Scott’s genre-defining masterpiece.
A bravura single take opening sequence – albeit achieved with sure digital assistance – introduces viewers to the crew as Ryan Reynolds’ ISS pilot retrieves the Mars probe containing Calvin, making it abundantly clear how far Espinosa’s talents have evolved from the workmanlike mediocrity of his prior Hollywood work (especially the stuffy 2015 dud you’ve probably never seen, Child 44). Espinosa’s shot selections artfully wring enormous amounts of suspense out of the claustrophobic setting, while opting for a pacier trajectory than the film’s most direct influence.
Still, much of the reason the film works so well is the script’s clear desire to treat these six walking, talking alien snacks as defined people, all the more surprising given that the script comes from Deadpool‘s Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (and Ryan Reynolds’ involvement is likely no coincidence). Arguably none of the sextet feels more human than Bakare’s biologist Hugh Derry, a paraplegic man whose ecstatic joy at discovering extraterrestrial life is quickly turned on its head when his own is endangered. Considering that Bakare will be mostly unknown to audiences, it’s surprising that his more famous co-stars’ characters don’t feel quite as developed or empathetic.
One of Life‘s bigger bugbears is that many of the characters make exceedingly dumb choices, especially Reynolds’ hot-headed wise-cracker, resulting in an occasional bout of Prometheus-induced deja vu. Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as brain dead as the litany of logic-jettisoning nonsense in Scott’s more recent sci-fi venture, but the movie could still totally do without it.
Still, for all of their embarrassing foibles, it’s nevertheless easy to care about most of these people when everything goes to pot, largely because the death scenes are so frighteningly, deceptively brutal. Eerie calm melds with the spaceship’s lesser, otherworldly gravity to make Calvin an outstanding sci-fi villain, a seemingly unstoppable entity which appears impervious to pretty much everything the team throws at it.
It’s probably a smart thing that the film clocks in at a mere 103 mins, because Life admittedly doesn’t have a ton more up its sleeve than a delineated A-to-B-to-C narrative. It’s a fairly streamlined, economic slasher-flick-in-space, yes, but boosted by that aforementioned style and the strong ensemble, best of all Rebecca Ferguson as a ruthlessly practical CDC officer. Weirdly, Jake Gyllenhaal might actually end up with one of the weaker characters here, an introspective oddball who still feels in search of a character by film’s end. Still, he does his reliable best, which manages to keep his Dr. David Jordan intriguing enough.
Life plays with an old set of toys in a familiar setting and, shockingly enough, produces an effort sure to be derisively compared to Alien until the end of time, regardless of its evident merits. One gets the feeling Espinosa et al are perfectly comfortable with that, however, creating a movie initially serving as a love letter to Scott’s classic before finally branching out into more bonkers territory in its free-wheeling final reel.
As an exercise in smoothly controlled direction, fine-tuned suspense and a well-matched cast of actors going at it in the confined arena of a tin-can in outer space, Life is a solidly entertaining creature feature, if lacking the innovation more discerning sci-fi fans might be searching for.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.