Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Ariyon Bakare, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya.
Some mad movie scientist has spliced together the DNA of Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing and Gravity, and the result is Life, a slick claustrophobic sci-fi thriller. This extra-terrestrial creature feature is familiar stuff and ticks all the right boxes, and it fills a void and will suffice until Ridley Scott unleashes his Alien Covenant later in the year.
The film is set aboard the International Space Station during the Mars Pilgrim 7 Mission. The space station has an international crew of six, featuring astronaut David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), the chief medical officer, who has just set a record for the most number of consecutive days spent circling the earth. The rest of the crew includes mission leader Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson, from Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, etc), from the Centre for Disease Control; wise cracking astronaut Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), scientist Hugh Derry (British actor Ariyon Bakare, from Jonathan Strange & Mr Morrell, etc), Japanese astronaut Sho Murakami (Japanese star Hiroyuki Sanada, from The Wolverine, etc), and Russian cosmonaut Ekaterina Golovniko (Olga Dihovichnaya, from Twilight Portrait, etc).
When the film opens, Adams has just completed a spacewalk to retrieve a research vessel returning from a mission to Mars. Inside are soil samples which the crew probe in their laboratory. They discover a single cell entity that offers proof of the existence of life on other planets. They name the entity Calvin. But Calvin soon proves hostile and intelligent and deadly and it starts attacking the crew. It resembles a large starfish, but it seems to grow and evolve with each new kill. It is also fast moving as it makes its way through the crooks and nannies and air vents of the space ship. Soon the race is on to try and find a way to destroy the creature before it destroys them and threatens life on earth should it reach our planet.
Life has been written by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, the pair responsible for the wildly entertaining comic book adaptation of Deadpool last year. But here they essentially play it straight with a slick horror thriller set in space. A lot of the technical language and scientific mumbo jumbo will go over the heads of most of the audience, but that doesn’t seem to matter too much. The film also deals with themes of sacrifice and courage.
The biggest problem with Life is that we don’t really get to identify with or empathise with the characters, so we don’t really care all that much about them when they meet their demise. Most of the interest lies in trying to identify in which order they will perish. A solid ensemble cast has been assembled and they do what they can with the underdeveloped characters. Gyllenahaal has never made a bad movie in his career, and here he brings a touch of gravitas and integrity to his role as the heroic astronaut. Ferguson has a strong presence and delivers a good performance, while Reynolds is well cast as the wise-cracking Adams.
The director is Swedish born filmmaker Daniel Espinosa, who gave us the gritty 2012 action thriller Safe House, which featured Reynolds and Denzel Washington. He wrings plenty of suspense out of the claustrophobic setting. The story doesn’t stray too far from the familiar clichés of the genre. Espinosa creates an atmosphere of slowly creeping dread as the human crew do battle with the predatory creature, and he delivers some well-timed shocks. He refrains from becoming too gory, although there are a few moments that are not for the squeamish. However ultimately the film is nowhere near as intense or creepy as Alien, which clearly established the template that Espinosa has chosen to emulate.
The special effects from British VFX firm Double Negative that have created Calvin are quite impressive and the creature is well integrated into the live action. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Nocturnal Animals, etc) does a great job with the visuals, considering the rather restrictive environment in which he is working. And the production design of the space station’s interior from Nigel Phelps is also impressive.
As with the best horror films though, the crew make some dumb decisions in trying to outsmart Calvin. In outer space no-one can hear you scream: “Don’t open that hatch!”