Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Running Time: 104 mins
Synopsis: A group of astronauts based on the ISS take on board the first soil extracts from Mars. In amidst the remnants is the first evidence of life. A small bacterial microbe that upon further examination takes on a startling growth and with it a need to survive. Unfortunately that need to survive involves eliminating all other life onboard.
Life is nothing you haven’t seen before. It is a tale of a small group of scientists aboard the International Space Station who find themselves against an unpredictable and malevolent alien species, as they wrestle with past Earth trauma (evidenced in Gyllenhaal’s former warzone medic David) and a drive to protect the planet from this angry extraterrestrial. If this reeks of such science fiction horrors as Event Horizon, Sunshine and the big shadow here Alien (particularly in its love of body terror and space crew banter) then Life succeeds by playing into this and striving to deliver well executed thrills despite the familiarity.
Opening with what is fast becoming an overused trope in cinema, the single tracking shot. This one swirling and swooping through the ISS as the 6 individuals who populate the crew are introduced. It wastes no time in getting the plot in motion as we witness Reynolds’ Rory Adams capture the speeding pod containing the ever precious Mars samples. Establishing the characters with some heavy handed but efficient dialogue, it is blunt but works decently. Although Rebecca Ferguson’s voice-over as security chief Miranda is exposition heavy and sluggish.
These are not particularly exciting characters to be around, offering little in the way of deep three-dimensionality. One suffers from traumas on Earth so finds solace in the quiet of space. One is the cocky verbose funny type (no prizes for guessing that falls to Ryan Reynolds). One is the nerdy science guy who always seems to know exactly what the alien is doing despite only spending a few sessions with it. All these are stock types, but at least Life has the good fortune to have cast some charismatic actors in these roles. Reynolds is at his charming snarky best, albeit tempered by the weaknesses of the script (odd as this comes from the writers of Deadpool and Zombieland). Ferguson and Gyllenhaal give wired, emotional and physically committed performances. The background performers are also capably solid and sell the horrors with gusto, with Sunshine’s Hiroyuki Sanada offering a performance of stoic barely suppressed emotion.
None of this would matter if the central alien does not deliver and Life’s monster is formidably monstrous if not quite memorable enough to linger. Growing exponentially and moving with an eel like grace, although in its early form it looks a little silly gliding around as it first escapes. As it stalks the ship and hunts its prey director Daniel Espinosa builds some solid jumps. The graphic deaths are unexpectedly full on, with one major character being snubbed surprisingly early on and in bloody fashion too. There is an odd predilection towards throats though, with at least 4 or 5 instances of long gooey limbs entering via that particular orifice.
The film maintains a keen momentum, building and building effectively, with Espinosa delivering set-pieces rife with tension and thrills. Too often it does rely on an incessantly loud score to drive the action, with the final scene equal parts ballsy and way too over the top thanks to a blaring soundtrack that’d make Hans Zimmer proud. It may seem like I am picking a lot of holes here but Life is competently made Friday night entertainment, brash with attempts at deeper themes being surface level at best, but breathless and exciting. Think of it as Alien’s young good looking but empty headed step-brother.
Verdict: Familiar situations and characters can be forgiven when Life delivers non-stop well orchestrated set-pieces married to a likeable cast. It won’t stick in the mind for Life but Hours doesn’t have the same ring to it.