Since the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien, countless films have attempted to capitalize on the paradoxically claustrophobic horror of space. From Paul W.S. Anderson’s dismal Event Horizon to 2009’s unbearable Pandorum, none have been able to recapture the unrivaled terror of Scott’s classic. Fortunately, Safe House director Daniel Espinosa has finally delivered a worthy successor with Life, a consistently gripping thriller with an unexpected dose of depth.
The film follows a group of astronauts stationed on the ISS, whose mission is to analyze a new batch of Mars samples, sifting through them for signs of alien life. Amongst the dirt, they discover a single-cell organism that, after being awoken by feedings of oxygen and glucose, begins to grow at a rapid pace. Given the moniker of Calvin, the creature soon escapes its confines (this is a horror movie after all) and proceeds to target each member of the crew.
Although we’ve certainly seen this story before, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool) are able to bring far more to the table than expected. While the film is certainly focused on scares first and foremost, it’s the script’s study of the possibly misguided nature of humanity’s lofty vision of itself as the universe’s crowning achievement that elevates Life above most sci-fi/horror films. Some of that depth is sadly lost as the film nears its conclusion, instead opting for a prolonged sequence that feels a bit too familiar and a twist that isn’t fully earned.
Reese and Wernick also craft an unexpectedly compelling cast of characters. The film wisely doesn’t waste time on introductions, instead allowing the backstories of each crew member to slowly, and naturally, seep out. Given nearly an equal amount of screen time, they’re all fascinating in their own regards, their reasons for being on the ISS (and away from Earth) in the first place proving both inspiring and profoundly heartbreaking.
The watchability of these characters is also largely thanks to the performances. While stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds are fantastic (Reynolds is especially great in one of his best roles yet), it’s the surrounding cast that steals Life. Shining a spotlight on international stars like Japan’s Hiroyuki Sanada and the UK’s Ariyon Bakare, who’s a genuine revelation with a soulfully internalized performance, the film’s inclusiveness is welcome. Life also provides another glimpse at rising star Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), who lends constant emotion to the film’s least developed character.
Espinosa also makes certain that Life never forgets its place as a horror film, the filmmaker grabbing hold of the audience the second Calvin escapes and not letting go until the aforementioned weak finale. The director is surprisingly restrained here, finally acquiring a solid understanding of tone and pace, something he seriously lacked with his two previous efforts (Safe House & Child 44). It’s that ability to pull back that provides the body of Life with such unflinching tension, particularly in one climactic sequence that pairs perspectives both in and out of the station. He’s aided by some impeccable effects work and brilliant creature design, cementing Calvin as one of sci-fi’s most terrifying beasts.
While slightly derivative and longwinded, Daniel Espinosa’s Life is a satisfying return to form for the sci-fi/horror genre that wisely pairs the claustrophobic terror of Alien with the thoughtfulness of that film’s middling prequel, Prometheus.