THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
If you've seen the trailer for Life, you probably thought it looked like a ripoff of Alien. Well, it is a ripoff of Alien. And that's okay because it's a darn good ripoff. This is an example of how something that's already been done can be done again without making audiences feel resentment. The whole thing is executed well enough that it easily surpasses most of the other Alien ripoffs we've endured over the years and, in its best moments, may even remind you of the queasy feeling you got from seeing Ridley Scott's 1979 shocker for the first time.
The story is set on the International Space Station. A team of scientists – including David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), and Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) – retrieves a space probe that is returning from Mars. Upon examining the soil sample inside, they discover a brand new single-cell life form. The thing, which they dub “Calvin,” quickly grows into something more complex and much bigger. Like all organisms, it needs to eat to survive, so it immediately begins hunting the humans on board. With a resilient, foreign body lurking around, the crew members have to fight to stay alive, while also searching for a way to ensure that it never reaches Earth.
The set-up and plot progression of Life are extremely familiar. There are grisly deaths as Calvin picks off the astronauts one-by-one. Characters run (or, in this case, glide) through the ISS, trying to evade the creature. Various methods of incapacitating Calvin are tried, and of course, they fail. The plot builds to a “Hail Mary” effort to banish the thing once and for all. No matter how you cut it, the movie follows the established formula to the letter.
Nevertheless, director Daniel Espinoza (Safe House) stages it with style and undeniable tension. Working from a screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool), he gets a lot of mileage out of the cramped ISS corridors. Espinoza often makes the camera spin and float, as if weightless itself. This helps to convey the lack of easy maneuverability that limits the characters, as well as the fact that they're not in a location where help is easily accessible.
Scenes in which Calvin goes after the astronauts are incredibly intense. You don't always know who is going to be the next victim or how they will succumb. Espinoza ratchets up the suspense expertly in this regard. It helps that Calvin is kind of an intriguing antagonist, resembling something between a starfish, a squid, and a jellyfish. The bigger it grows, the more ominous it appears, especially when it wraps its tentacles around somebody's limb. Life obviously has moments of gore, yet it wisely only uses them to accentuate the danger to the humans. Rather than reveling in blood, the movie makes the deaths somewhat graphic to illustrate that the crew members have very good reason to fear this alien.
Life lacks the depth of characterization that Alien had. With more development of the individuals populating the story, it might actually have approached the all-time classic status of that picture. Reynolds, Gyllenhaal, and Ferguson (The Girl on the Train) do fine work with what they have. We don't get to know much about Jordan, North, or Adams, though, which is somewhat disappointing given the caliber of actors here.
There are times when Life seems as though it wants to say something meaningful about space exploration and/or human existence. It never quite does, opting instead to be a fast-paced outer space horror flick. On that level, at least, the film works magnificently. This is a taut, scary thrill ride that builds to a suitably horrific final moment.
Yes, we've seen this basic story before, but when it's carried out with this much (literal) nail-biting tension, who cares?
( out of four)
Life is rated R for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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