Great horror movies are, among other things, an exercise in style and tone. Alien differed from earlier monsters-on-a-spaceship films because it took its subject matter seriously and featured stunning design work from director Ridley Scott and his collaborators. Gravity wasn’t the first film about astronauts trapped in space, but it was one of the most striking thanks to Alfonso Cuaron’s dizzying use of camerawork and digital filmmaking to create what appeared to be a story told in one seamless take.
This brings us to Life, a space horror film which feels like an unholy amalgam of Alien, Gravity, plus a dash of Prometheus, John Carpenter’s The Thing and Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Xperiment. Life’s individual parts aren’t unique, but the way they’ve been put together – and the slickness of their execution – makes the movie something more than a straight genre mash-up.
Like Gravity, Life takes place more-or-less in the present; we’re aboard the International Space Station, where its crew of six are awaiting the return of a probe returning from Mars. The craft carries soil samples from the Red Planet which, scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) believes, will provide the first evidence of life outside Earth. When a single-celled life form is discovered among the samples, there’s celebration among the crew and the inhabitants of Earth – who we see excitedly crowded into Times Square, their imaginations captured by the new discovery.
Aboard the confines of the ISS, however, the celebration soon quietens down as the organism – dubbed Calvin – begins to grow at a startling rate. As the tiny life form begins to stir in its petri dish, quarantine officer Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) and the rest of her crew – Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuji Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya – find themselves in a fight for survival.
From familiar-sounding material, director Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money, Safe House) crafts a stylish, white-knuckle space thriller. There’s suspense, there are moments to make you gag, and just when you think you know where the story’s going, Espinosa and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take some pleasingly unexpected turns. Life immediately sets itself apart from the space horror pack by grounding its events in present-day reality; the crew of the USS float about in zero G; their muscles have atrophied from months in space; and above all, there’s a pleasing sense that these characters have spent months together in close proximity.
It’s this latter point that makes Life work so well from a dramatic perspective. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was a visual feast, yet its characters bore all the intelligence and logic of a bunch of school kids on a field trip. In this respect, Espinosa’s film feels more in the lineage of Alien than Prometheus did; as the crew talk about their family life back home, or Ryan Reynolds cracks boisterous jokes, there’s the sense that these are real people in a real space station – all of which makes the moments of suspense click into place all the more satisfyingly.
Technically, Espinosa’s work here is similarly assured. Life’s a far more complete-feeling, believable film than Child 44, his 2015 drama-thriller set behind the Iron Curtain. As Hugh prods and studies his newfound pet in a his quarantined lab, and his colleagues look on, wide-eyed through the protective glass, Espinosa ably builds up the tension, biding his time until, all of a sudden, the movie bites down and the pace shifts into something approaching full-on terror.
Jon Eskrand’s music and some superb sound design adds to the building dread; some strikingly committed performances also help sell the feeling that the crew of the USS are staring the unknown full in the face. Regrettably, the creature itself doesn’t scale the iconic heights of the Starbeast in Alien or the beefy presence of the big game hunter in Predator, partly because it’s brought to life with CGI rather than practically. What the creature lacks in originality, however, it makes up for in resilience and sheer speed; indeed, the same could be said of the film as a whole.
Superbly made and acted, Life is, in its strongest moments, properly scary. I can’t help thinking of a quote James Cameron once used to describe his own space horror film, Aliens: “Forty miles of bad road.”
Life is out in UK cinemas this Friday.