UK Release Date: 24th March 2017
Runtime: 104 minutes
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Writer: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare
Synopsis: A team of scientists aboard the International Space Station find themselves threatened when a strange life-form recovered from Mars escapes its containment and begins to grow at an alarming rate.
Everyone has seen Alien and an enormous chunk of us have been utterly terrified by it. So influential and memorable is Ridley Scott‘s 70s horror film that any scary movie set in outer space is always going to be compared to it. Even this year’s sequel Alien: Covenant is going to be doomed to live in the shadow of its iconic predecessor. With that in mind, it’s shocking that a movie as obviously derivative as Life has made its way into multiplexes and attracted a cast packed with A-list stars. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa‘s film is a competent enough watch, but there’s always a nagging sense that you may as well watch Alien instead.
Six members of the crew on the International Space Station led by Russian commander Katerina (Olga Dihovichnaya) bring a strange alien life-form on board when a probe returns with it from Mars. Biologist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) examines a cell from the sample, whimsically named Calvin by schoolkids back on Earth, and reanimates it. When the sample becomes hostile, engineer Roy (Ryan Reynolds) intervenes to rescue his colleague. Calvin soon escapes his containment and begins picking off the crew as pilot Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada) tries to guide them to safety, while crew members including medical officer David (Jake Gyllenhaal) and quarantine officer Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) try to neutralise the threat.
There’s nothing much wrong with Life, on the face of it. It’s a nicely tense horror movie with solid sci-fi visuals and a genuinely impressive cast list. Unfortunately, there’s a nagging sense throughout that this has all been done better before. The film plays as a mish-mash of Gravity and Alien, with none of the cinematic boundary-pushing showcased by either of those films. It’s simply a competent piece of work that is going to be almost immediately forgotten when Alien: Covenant arrives in cinemas later this month.
The central premise of Life is a simple, but solid one and it’s helped by some tremendous creature design. Calvin takes the form of a squid-like monster and there are intriguing changes and adaptations as he grows and adapts to his environment. Espinosa is able to mine significant tension from the fact that neither the characters nor the audience can ever be sure what shape and form the threat will take the next time it emerges from around the corner. This wrinkle is genuinely innovative, but feels somewhat under-served by the rather generic trappings of the story surrounding it.
Everything about Life is solid rather than remarkable and this is no truer than in its cast. Almost everyone involved in the film has done exceptional work recently, whether it’s Ryan Reynolds’ comic renaissance in films like Deadpool and The Voices or Rebecca Ferguson’s scene-stealing turn in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Jake Gyllenhaal, especially, has been in the midst of his strongest ever acting run in recent years, so it’s unusual for him to take something so undemanding. It’s not that anyone in the film delivers a bad performance, but they simply don’t have anything much to work with.
Life, despite its derivative shortcomings, remains an entertaining and convincing horror movie with significant tension in its horror sequences. It’s well put together by Espinosa and has a genuinely ballsy ending that subverts audience expectations with its real sense of surprise. The cast do solid work with the material in front of them and there are early surprises thanks to their performances. Unfortunately, there’s a xenomorph-shaped spectre that looms large over every single shot.
Pop or Poop?
A more than passing resemblance to several other movies hits Life with an enormous torpedo and inflicts a wound that all of the cinematic competence and tension building in the world cannot bandage. Gyllenhaal, Ferguson and Reynolds all do strong acting work, but there’s nothing there that really marks Espinosa’s rather generic film out as one worth remembering.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.