The premise of the new sci-fi horror thriller Life clearly borrows from two other excellent sci-fi thrillers Alien and The Andromeda Strain, and, like both of those, delivers a tense cinematic experience that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat, guessing about the outcome up to the final scene.
The action all takes place on the International Space Station, crewed by a team of six specialists who are focused on capturing and analyzing soil samples from the planet Mars: a Martian lander has shot back to Earth and after eight months in transit it’s on target to be intercepted by the ISS. But Life wastes no time throwing proverbial wrenches into the machine and the Martian craft ends up shooting out of control towards Earth, not neatly en route for its planned rendezvous with the ISS.
It’s up to wisecracking engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) to catch the craft: they can’t risk it plummeting into Earth’s atmosphere because who knows what’s on board from the red planet! Once intercepted and the the Martian samples brought on board, the alien soil is isolated by astrobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) in a scene inspired by The Andromeda Strain. Scientific curiosity outweighs all and soon various tests and experiments are being performed to try and “resuscitate” the weird life form, the proof of extra-terrestrial life. As the movie poster warns, though, “Be careful what you search for.”
Derry succeeds in bringing the alien creature to life and we learn from mission commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) that while it’s a single cell, it can act as both a muscle and a brain. Gazing into the growing creature through a containment barrier, Derry states with wonder that it’s creating “a network of interconnected neurons”. Meanwhile, though, it continues to grow and seems to gain an understanding of its environment.
But the life form, dubbed “Calvin”, isn’t benign and soon begins to explore the space station in ways that the ISS designers never intended. At that point the film becomes a locked room – locked space station – thriller, where crew members, starting with Adams, are killed by the increasingly smart and capable alien life. How to kill it? How to avoid being killed?
It’s up to the remaining crew members, Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), world-weary spacer and former military expert David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and medical specialist Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) to formulate a way to fight the creature before it’s too late.
The visual effects are really excellent and much of the film has fluid orientation as the astronauts bounce along corridors and through various rooms as you would expect would happen in a zero-gravity space station. While we’ve seen the ISS on screen before in the space thriller Gravity, almost all of Life takes place inside the ship and its various modules and pods, adding an additional layer of claustrophobia to the events unfolding.
And then there’s the homage to the ground-breaking Alien sci-fi horror series, something that becomes more and more obvious as the film unspools. It’s done very well, and one of the many things going for Life is that it’s a smart film populated by not just smart humans trying to survive, but a smart creature that seems to be able to adapt to increasingly hostile conditions too.
The performances are good but the dialog is weak and there’s little emotional engagement or identification with anyone, even Murakami, with his newborn child on Earth. It’s not a film that will pull you in because of the relationships between the characters, that’s for sure, but more of an almost antiseptic hard science thriller.
Potentially nightmare-inducing for the little ones, Life is one of the best science fiction horror thrillers I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s one to enjoy twice, the first time to enjoy the unfolding of the story, the second time to appreciate the science and production values. Go see it in the theater, the visual effects are best suited for a really big screen!