Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
Film Review by Jack Bottomley
In an age where the world is fast catching up with Sci-Fi cinema, where phones are not just handheld but contain - essentially - your life on one small flat screen and everything from movies to funerals are being streamed live, it is becoming an apparent necessity for Sci-Fi to work that little bit harder to retain distinctiveness. However, as the constant sequels/prequels/remakes looking to expand on classic pieces of Science Fiction (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Alien: Covenant, Blade Runner 2049) denote, we have not forgot about the past and sometimes you cannot beat a good old fashioned Sci-Fi caper. Enter Daniel Espinosa’s (Safe House, Child 44) new film Life, which is not a film of breathtaking, groundbreaking originality but is a film that embraces core genre ideals and offers reasons to care about the characters and to be gripped by the well tested and still thoroughly effective content.
The set-up is very akin to the claustrophobic Horror/Sci-Fi trappings of John Carpenter’s The Thing and, most recognisably, Ridley Scott’s landmark Alien (there is even a sly answer to the iconic chestburster scene here), with dashes of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. The film sees a crew of astronauts aboard the International Space Station examine a soil sample from Mars and in the process discover an organism that is the first definitive proof of life beyond Earth. However when the organism becomes dormant the team panic and come up with a plan to wake the lifeform - named Calvin by a school in America back on Earth -....big mistake (but, of course, you already knew that)! The inevitable unleashing of Calvin on this international crew is expected but despite the familiarity of the film’s construction, Espinosa’s movie tells this story of a dangerous alien picking of a crew of brainy scientist/astronauts...and tells it well.
The film is never boring and hits the ground running, with a action-esque sequence straight out of the gate and from there on relies on genuine suspense, as well as some icky extraterrestrial violence, in a brisk and welcome, 100 minute approx run time. Like last year’s Passengers, this is an enjoyable offering that does not re-invent the wheel, unlike that film though, Life is edge of seat stuff that never really lets up and escapes the fact you have seen similar things before by working to be a better experience than you ever expected it to be. Pre-release hype has suggested - unlikely as it may be - that the film is a prequel to the upcoming Venom film and while it does come from Deadpool scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (and stars the merc with a mouth himself), that is likely where the comic book connection ends. All the same, this is one heck of a fun ride that is filled with plenty of thrills and while we are all banging on about the fact nothing is particularly new (in an innovation sense) we are missing out on all the joy from this old school space-set Sci-Horror jaunt.
The effects are top notch, utilising CGI in the best possible ways and “Calvin” is one of the best designed movie monsters to come along in some time, recalling the body Horror shock of ‘The Thing’ meshed with the B-Movie tentacled monsters of old. This Octopus-influenced force of natural terror is perfectly realised and themes of how nature trying to survive cannot really be evil are well placed and a welcome addition to this story. In many ways, this film outperforms and it such a shame more have not seen it in cinemas as it is the perfect Friday night movie, offering thrills, intensity and the odd scare to boot, whilst also being backed by a very good crew. We have made much of the film’s familiar Sci-Fi tropes but that is not to say it doesn’t surprise, be it an early act death or the brilliant ending that misdirects you and goes to the dark level you are hoping for but not entirely expecting and it is in this moment particularly that Jon Ekstrand’s score - heavily a homage to the restraint of Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Alien - really breaks out (appropriately).
The film is just really enjoyable and is helped by the fact that the cast and script work to make these characters likeable, to the point that you care about their potentially grisly fates (and boy are some of them grisly). Sure they all fit the conventional token roles (talented scientist, family man, jokester, loner, etc.) but escape any restrictions of this by giving great performances, with some good lines of dialogue and plenty of actual time. Jake Gyllenhaal as American medical officer David is interesting enough, as he is more at home away from home (much like Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone in Gravity), while Rebecca Ferguson’s duty bound but caring British Quarantine Officer Miranda is a welcome opposite to the cut off David. Ryan Reynolds is his usual cheeky but charming self as system engineer Rory, while Japanese pilot Sho is character you deeply care about thanks to the emotion brought by Hiroyuki Sanada, with nice support also offered by Olga Dihovichnaya as Russian crew commander Katerina and Ariyon Bakare as British biologist Hugh, who invests himself in the mission (and in Calvin). It is a crew that does not annoy but instead carries along the plot and Calvin is the film’s deadly bogeyman...or rather bog-ET...does that work? Hmm, anyways you get the point.
Overall Life is worth your time and escapes its familiar structure of its chosen Sci-Fi, by simply embracing it and becoming a heck of a fun ride in the process. It still seems that in space no one can hear you scream.