With our continued exploration of Mars and other bodies in our own solar system, and more and more exoplanets being detected around other stars, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before we find some kind of evidence of extraterrestrial life, intelligent or otherwise. The new sci-fi thriller Life keeps things close to home, with a crew of six on the International Space Station studying soil samples retrieved by an unmanned Martian probe. They discover, to their initial delight, that they’ve brought back an ancient microscopic organism that, in the ISS lab, they are able to revive.
That all happens in the first 10 minutes, before the title of the movie even appears onscreen. But since this is a thriller and it’s rated R, you know that the awe and wonder that our intrepid crew — led by Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds — feels is going to soon give way to terror and despair. As you might guess, the organism — named Calvin by a student back on Earth whose own school budget for science would probably be on the federal chopping block in real life at this point — is not only extremely adaptable but exceptionally aggressive when it comes to staying alive, much to the misfortune of anyone who comes in contact with it… as well as perhaps our home planet if it somehow finds its way from the station to the surface.
“Who will survive and what will be left of them” might have been an apt tag line for this film, because Calvin dispatches its victims in a number of grisly ways. What makes the creature, which is basically a growing mass of undifferentiated cells that can all function with the same purpose, unique is that while it’s decidedly nasty, it’s not necessarily malevolent. It’s not even intelligent in any way we can understand; it’s just driven by the need to survive and keep nourishing and replenishing itself. The implacable and original nature of the menace is one of the stronger aspects of Life, which was directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool).
The first 40 minutes or so of Life are probably the film’s strongest, as we see the crew, professionals all, go about their jobs in order to capture the Mars capsule that is hurtling, damaged by meteors, toward the ISS. They transfer its samples into Kibo, the secure ISS lab where paraplegic British scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) eagerly begins the experiment that revives Calvin.
At first, there are glimmers of a true sense of wonder and mystery about the life form that the movie only fleetingly captures later on. The sequence of events in which things start to go wrong is directed for maximum, even excruciating tension, by Espinosa. The first fatality is not just gruesome, but macabre in its implications.
From that point, Life doesn’t always live up to its potential. Its second half is a derivation of Alien and every other film in which a dwindling band of humans must fend off an otherworldly threat in an enclosed space, watching each plan to defeat the thing end with another body on the floor (or, in this case, floating in the zero gravity). The cast is good but the characters are paper-thin. Reynolds is the hot-shot, wisecracking mechanic who can fix anything, Ferguson is the by-the-book quarantine officer, and Gyllenhaal the aloof scientist who has logged 473 days on the ISS because he doesn’t like being around people back home. Olga Dihovichnaya and Hiroyuki Sanada round out the crew as mission commander and flight engineer respectively, each given maybe one personality trait to remember them by.
It’s somewhat of a wonder that Espinosa and the actors manage to get us to care about any of these folks, seeing how indifferently they’re developed, but they work up enough empathy to keep us invested. And they also liven it up with some genuine shocks involving Calvin, one of the more nightmarish monsters we’ve seen in this kind of outing in quite some time.
Ideas that might have helped elevate the material into some more cerebral areas of science fiction — like whether Calvin is intelligent, or if his species once dominated Mars and eventually made it desolate — are thrown out in bits of dialogue but hang there suspended, just like the cast as they believably navigate the gravity-free passages of the ISS (which has been replicated beautifully on the screen as a physical set by production designer Nigel Phelps).
Nevertheless, despite its flaws of characterization and structure, Life is still fun. An inch-deep but serviceable monster movie that stars one hell of a creepy creation (Calvin has a way of wrapping a pseudopod around a person’s arm or leg that made even this hardened horror fan a little squeamish). The horror aspects of the movie may outweigh the loftier sci-fi ideas that fleetingly surface here and there in the movie, yet Calvin will get a grip on you that’s hard to shake. Life may be more B-movie than classic, but it would not be surprising to see a “restored deluxe edition” show up as a Scream Factory Blu-ray 10 or 15 years from now.
Life opens in theaters next Friday (March 24).