If it feels like Life succeeds in spite of itself, the important thing is that it succeeds
As much as it wants to be, the new deep-space thriller Life is no Alien. Then again, what is? What could be? When Ridley Scott directed his 1979 no one-can-hear-you-scream masterpiece, there were still rules to break and boundaries to push. He giddily broke and pushed all of them, combining what were dismissed as two distinct and disreputable gutter genres (science fiction and horror) and fusing them into one glorious chest-bursting hybrid. You could be intelligent and graphically gooey at the same time. Who knew? In fact, it was possible that by doing so you could even approach something like art. Life doesn’t aspire to be art. Which is fine. Not everything has to. I only bring up Alien because that’s how the movie is being sold. Still, if you lower your sights a few pegs and go in looking for a solid, tight B-movie that builds right until the final shot, there’s a lot to like.
Life tracks the fates of six astronauts aboard the International Space Station. They’re making a pitstop on their way home from Mars, where they found microscopic evidence of single-cell life forms, and they’ve got the history-making specimens with them. Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House, Child 44) gets off to a somewhat muddled start, fumbling what could have been a concise table-setting tour of the spacecraft, but instead he turns it into a murky maze. We never really know where we are. All we know is that it’s dark and as cramped and claustrophobic as a casket, which is essentially what we know it will become over the next hour and a half. The introduction of the crew and their gumbo of accents is only slight more coherent: There’s Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation) as the no-nonsense rep from the Centers for Disease Control; Jake Gyllenhaal as the slightly depressive chief medical officer; Ryan Reynolds as (what else?) the wisecracking scientist tossing off Re-Animator references; Ariyon Bakare (Jupiter Ascending) as the ship’s exobiologist with withered CG legs (which seems like a very pricey method of character building); Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya as a Boris-and-Natasha-sounding cosmonaut; and Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine) as a Japanese engineer and proud father of a newborn back on Earth.
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Espinosa and his screenwriters, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the team behind Deadpool), don’t make us care about the crew members as much as they probably think they do. But they more than make up for it as soon as Bakare zaps the Martian amoeba to dancing life. That’s when the movie zaps to life too. Suddenly, there’s a seventh member onboard. They name it “Calvin.” And it’s growing fast. It’s also adaptive and intelligent and aggressive. But Bakare’s scientist is too smitten with his new discovery to absorb any of this until it crushes his hand like a walnut in a vise and breaks loose, squishily scampering through the ducts and vents. What was once minuscule and harmless is now as big as an octopus, as transparent as jellyfish, and as fast as a cockroach when the lights come on. No one onboard knows what they’re dealing with and how deadly it might be. They just know that they’re trapped in a tight space with something very, very angry.
It’s not giving anything away to say that from this point on, Life is basically a zero-gravity bodycount flick — And Then There Were None in space. The crew tries every way it can to kill the thing, but Calvin won’t die. I kept waiting for Jeff Goldblum to show up on their communication screen to say, “Life…uh…finds a way.” Espinosa stages some clever scares and creative kills while the crew make one bone-headed decision after another in their bid to survive (they have a particular knack for opening hatches when they should stay closed). Then again, watching smart people make dumb choices is one of cinema’s deepest pleasures. Life isn’t a great movie (in fact, it’s kind of a mess). But it is a really fun one. Somehow it manages to keep pushing enough joy-buzzer buttons to keep the audience on edge until the last scene. If it feels like Life succeeds in spite of itself, the important thing is that it succeeds. B+