A group of astronauts meet an alien and find themselves in a fight for their lives. Yes, Life tackles a plot that has played out on the screen many times before, but don’t let familiarity suggest for a second that it can’t deliver a nerve-wracking, heart-pounding film-going experience.
The plot follows the crew of the International Space Station, assigned to study a sample taken from Mars. The sample is soon discovered to be the very first irrefutable sign of extraterrestrial life, a finding that is of great news to everyone back on Earth. It isn’t long before the organism – named Calvin by the children on Earth – has found its first victim, leaving the rest of the crew on a race to figure out how to destroy and survive this seemingly unstoppable creature.
Director Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money, Safe House) takes the decidedly lean and joyously mean screenplay by Deadpool scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and juices it for every ounce of tension. From a muscular one-take opening through to a number of tightly constructed sequences, Espinosa has one thing in mind: keeping the audience on edge. He delivers on that throughout almost the entire run time. Remove the poorly tacked on sections with Earth towards the beginning, and you’ve got yourself one taut sci-fi horror film. Again, there’s a lot here that we’ve seen before, but that’s not an impairment; fans of both science fiction and horror cinema will have fun spotting the many influences clearly and proudly hinted at – fun nods at everything from Alien to John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Reese and Wernick deliver a refreshingly spare script, especially in an age where movies are too often determined to provide one silly reason or another for every detail. The team members do perhaps border on being slightly underwritten, but there’s no real need to learn much more than we do. It’s about Calvin, damn it; the cast is here to make us care enough for if and, let’s face it, when the creature targets its next victim. Thankfully, the cast, which includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya, are amiable enough to quickly gather some affection. It must be said that the various relationships and dynamics between these characters don’t always convince, but it doesn’t prove too much of a hindrance when the horror is in full swing.
Calvin, for the most part, is a terrifying creation. From a small organism to a much bigger, jaw-droppingly aggressive monster, the film’s creature antagonist is effectively grotesque. Espinosa and co are determined the audience feel Calvin’s violent, strong, highly physical demeanour, and you certainly do. The way the extra-terrestrial moves and attacks is surprisingly visceral and confronting in nature; you won’t be forgetting some of those assaults in a hurry. Unfortunately, it’s not all good news when it comes to Calvin. Some of the CG visuals driving the creature do let it down on occasion, which does pull you out for a split second here and there. The attempt to inject the creature with visual personality traits towards the end is a little silly and the vagueness surrounding Calvin’s weaknesses does make it a little too convenient for the film to ramp up the stakes seemingly at random (maybe they could – oh, nope, they can’t. How about – oh, damn, never mind. What if – ohhhh really!?). While there are some qualms to be found with Calvin, they aren’t too bothersome; you’ll still be searching every corner of the screen for a hint of its arrival.
Despite a few weak spots, Life has crafted most of its elements well. The cast give strong performances, composer Jon Ekstrand (Easy Money, Child 44) crafts a nail-biting score, and Espinosa and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, The Avengers) creatively position the lens, ensuring you feel a hint of the disorienting effects that can come with zero gravity. It should also be mentioned that the weightlessness on display for most of the film is convincingly done, the result of no doubt exhausting wire work.
Tension is the name of the game here. If you have a heart condition or suffer from severe anxiety, perhaps it’s best to think twice about heading signing up to one. It’s a film that knows just what buttons to push to get those nerves worked up, even if it doesn’t quite deliver the goods at every turn. Look close enough and you’ll notice some cracks, but you’ll likely be too enraptured to get a chance. Throw in a deliciously bleak, shocking final reveal, and you have yourself a very solid sci-fi horror flick that will get that heart pumping.