For decades, the pinnacle of the sci-fi horror genre was Ridley Scott’s Alien, although it’s territory John Carpenter explored just as well with his version of The Thing in 1982 and plenty of others have followed suit.
Life, written by Deadpool scribes Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese and directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), pays tribute to both those classics with a film that offers insight into the fairly simple idea of what it might be like to find life on another planet and what might happen if that existence proves to be hostile. This type of premise has driven the best science fiction in all formats, and while the way Life sometimes falls back on ways this premise has worked before that might make it feel derivative, it also offers enough tension to keep you invested throughout.
The ISS (International Space Station) Pilgrim 7 is about to receive samples from an unmanned craft returning from Mars, as we meet the crew with the boisterous Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) out in space trying to catch the craft returning from Mars. The operation is being run by Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), who has the duty to carry out a mission that requires making sure anything found on Mars will remain isolated where it can be studied by the rest of the crew, including Jake Gyllenhaal’s David Jordan.
It’s the ship’s “science officer” Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) who first interacts with the single cell organism they find on Mars, an alien quickly nicknamed “Calvin.” He’s also the first to experience Calvin’s violent side as it tries to escape containment. The crew quickly realizes how important it becomes to keep their find isolated, but it’s not long before they realize that eliminating their discovery is the only way to keep it from possibly killing them all.
The first thing you need to accept about Life is that it’s going more for the type of slow build of Alien rather than the wild outer space action foundation of recent sci-fi films like the Star Trek movies. As much as Life might feel like a “big” movie, it’s still one that takes place almost entirely inside or just outside the space station with just the small cast of seven to eight characters created. Because of that, it’s more about introducing the characters in a way that gives each crew member a specific field of expertise that makes them beneficial to the mission, all of them laid out quite clearly as they’re introduced.
It’s deliberately more claustrophobic than something like the recent Passengers, but also, there’s a special attention to detail and authenticity to make this more grounded in real science rather than just being something fantastical and hard to swallow. In that sense, Espinosa does a great job with the material, making the movie feel bigger with well-choreographed action sequences and creating the tautest of tension using the music and editing.
As far as the actual alien, it’s a fascinating bit of super-strong protoplasm that looks like a starfish at first but then grows into the size of an octopus, becoming stronger and smarter as it becomes acclimated to its environment, making it even more deadly. The CG creature is so well-integrated into the sets and with the actors that it never has to be hidden in the shadows to make it scarier.
As you might imagine, the crew is picked off one by one, leaving a couple of them to figure out how to destroy “Calvin” as it becomes obvious that the authorities on earth would destroy the ship rather than allowing it to reach earth.
The film ends with the type of cliffhanger we’ve come to expect from thrillers these days where there’s no solid conclusion, although leaving things open ended certainly offers potential for another story, if the filmmakers choose to go that route. (One can presume that they do.)
For diehard fans of science fiction, Life is a welcome addition to the genre, even if it may not be as entertaining to mass audiences as The Martian or others, mainly because it is slower and more grounded in reality than the science fiction movies to which modern audiences have become accustomed.
Life opens on Friday, March 24.