Directed by Daniel Espinosa, Life is a first-contact, sci-fi horror movie set in orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Although it is formulaic in both scares and plotting, Life is lean and brutal enough to own its simplicity.
The movie starts on a high note, when a probe returns from Mars, loaded with soil samples of the Red Planet. The world cheers as the six astronauts confirm active life in the soil, a single-celled organism dubbed Calvin. After the glow of the successful mission and thrill of meeting new life, the movie quickly shifts in an ominous direction when the Martian life-form grows rapidly and proves itself tough to handle. Made entirely of muscle/brain/eye cells, it learns fast and has a monstrous appetite for life’s basic needs: food, water and oxygen. Such primal needs are bloodily met as Calvin escapes the secure laboratory and goes on a rampage.
Life’s production values are stellar. The CGI is convincing and finely rendered, and the sound design, while not groundbreaking, plays its role with finesse. Dark, tense music plays right on time to signal Calvin’s vicious presence, and sudden electronic alarms and hisses of air add to the claustrophobic, outer-space vibe throughout the film. Stars Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson and Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as the support actors, range their acting from palpable scientific excitement and joy to casual banter to appropriate horror and grief. Although stock and unremarkable, the six astronauts, and their reactions to Calvin’s rampage, highlight the monster’s unstoppable, alien strength and hunger.
Classic sci-fi movies such as Ridley Scott’s Alien and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity are immediately brought to mind when Life’s tentacled monster eats its way through the trapped crew and when the surviving astronauts fight to escape with whatever thrusters, electronic systems, and old-fashioned physics they can get their hands on. Life relies a bit too heavily on Alien and its sequel Aliens (directed by James Cameron), from its early scenes of an amicable crew, to Calvin shoving its way down an astronaut’s throat to feed, to the surviving astronauts tracking the beast with a red dot on a screen.
The final sequence calls Gravity to mind, although its last moments diverge considerably in tone and implications. Life’s ending itself felt acceptable given the movie’s events and tone, somewhere between thrilling horror and an open-ended nature. It does not, however, seem to invite a sequel, at least, not a sequel that plays out anything like this movie.
Overall, Life seems content to stay on well-worn tracks of monster horror and sci-fi thrillers, and while this limits the power of its plot twists and meager novelty, Life, like its Martian menace, makes the most of what it’s given and hits with surprising strength.