June 2022

Life (2017)

DIRECTOR: Daniel Espinosa

CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanda, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya



Among the various sci-fi thrillers over the decades that owe greater or lesser degrees of inspiration to Ridley Scott’s 1979 AlienLife is one of the worthier indirect descendants/homages.  Daniel Espinosa is not terribly subtle about borrowing a page (or several pages) from Alien, but screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the same men behind 2016’s very different Deadpool) also come up with enough twists and turns on their own for it not to be unforgivably derivative.  But while fans of Alien may find Life worth a look, be warned: this is a dark, gruesome ride that is not for the faint of heart or for those who demand happy endings.

Our hapless protagonists are the six-person crew of the International Space Station, investigating soil samples collected from a capsule just returned from Mars.  The team consists of Americans Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), British Center for Disease Control official Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) and biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), Japanese Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanda), and Russian mission commander Katerina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya).  But the Mars capsule has brought something else back: a single cell organism they nurse back to health and nickname “Calvin”.  But wonder turns to terror when Calvin grows rapidly and shows surprising levels of intelligence and predatory instincts.  When Calvin breaks out of the lab, it becomes crew against alien, with the even bigger danger of Calvin reaching Earth.

Like Alien, Life starts as a slow burn and then abruptly takes a hard turn into gruesome sci-fi horror and spikes up the tension to uncomfortable levels.  It doesn’t quite reach the nerve-wracking harrowing intensity of Alien, but there are moments when it comes close, especially during Calvin’s initial escape and the climactic cat-and-mouse game as David and Miranda try to lure it into a trap.  The exterior scenes of the space station are as convincing as those in Gravity, and the interiors are suitably dark and claustrophobic.  It follows the same basic beats as Alien: crew brings a deadly alien life form onboard, then spends the rest of the movie playing cat-and-mouse games and getting picked off one-by-one, but “Calvin” is sufficiently unique in his design (he vaguely resembles an octopus, and looks nothing like a xenomorph), and the climax doesn’t go the “happy ending” route.  There’s no relief from the nightmare here, for either the characters or the audience.

Life isn’t long on character development, but the cast is effective.  This isn’t one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s standout roles, but he provides a steady, reliable presence and makes David sympathetic to the extent allowed by his thin backstory (a former military doctor disillusioned with war and suffering who prefers the peace and solitude of the space station).  Rebecca Ferguson gets to continue the career boost she got from going into action heroine mode by joining the Mission Impossible franchise.  The other biggest “name” in the cast is Ryan Reynolds, but he only makes it about forty minutes in before suffering a gruesome demise in the vein of John Hurt’s role in Alien.  The lesser-known supporting cast—Hiroyuki Sanda, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya—are solid, but as is inevitable in this kind of movie, they exist primarily as monster fodder and to make us play the horror movie guessing game of who will die next.

Life might be an engaging homage to Alien but only an homage; despite some harrowing scenes, it’s nowhere near as powerfully intense or draining an experience, and doesn’t leave as lasting of an impression.  But it’s dark and tense, and doesn’t play it safe, and is sufficiently unsettling and involving to be worth a look for fans of the genre.

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