A couple weeks before seeing man tackle Life, I was able to witness the man versus nature in Kong: Skull Island. Both films feel similar in terms of their approach and inspiration. The situations presented are not unfamiliar and the filmmakers seem happier taking advantage of the means afforded to them in playing out their wildest cinematic genre movie fantasies, rather than dwell on deep character building. As a result, while I was a bigger fan of Kong, Life also functions as a condensed thriller influenced by a variety of other movies and video games. That’s the name of the game with these younger filmmakers and this sci-fi horror show is another example of seeing how branching out from familiar territory can pay off.
To get this out of the way, Life owes plenty to Ridley Scott’s Alien, let alone properties such as Dead Space (which, in turn, was also inspired by Alien). Given the general idea of having a crew of astronauts face off against a newly discovered life form, this film becomes more about how they plan to shake things up and what kind of filmmaking techniques will be employed. Luckily for us, director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) has moved away from gritty (and shaky cam-heavy) earth-bound action flicks and into space. Thanks to the notes he took from Alfonso Cauron’s Gravity, the effort shows in seeing this slick-looking film involving actors constantly floating around the International Space Station, while contending with an unwelcome guest.
Speaking of the actors, the welcome trend of making these kinds of movies internationally diverse allows Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds to be joined by Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada (don’t go into space with this guy), Ariyon Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya. Each plays a pivotal role in the film, but rather than describe each of their specific space duties, just take it from me that they are all very smart individuals. That’s an important note and distinction to make when it comes to seeing how certain actions unfold, as I can already see the logic police coming out to knock every single decision made over the course of this film. What matters more is just how committed this cast is, as it really helped me settle into this film.
Keeping that in mind, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick seem to have done what they could in an effort to make a mean and lean sci-fi thriller that makes just enough sense. Yes, there are a few holes and plays at misdirection, but it is a functional story that makes the most out of its setup and the level of tension created by the malevolent force presented. Basically, this is a film that justifies my reasoning for enjoying something like Red Planet. Both are B-movies with A-budgets, but they get by on the visceral level of tension established thanks to the influence of slasher films. That’s really what Life is by the way.
One can go into the setup that involves a rover’s successful trip back from Mars and the world-changing thought of discovering actual life, but much like the organism that was found, the film quickly outgrows the intellectual ideas and moves straight into terror, dread, action and death. For all the optimism seen in these characters and the cheery dispositions they initially have, this film really wants to go out of its way to knock them all down and make sure they remember how cruel life can be. That is established pretty firmly when you consider how the most comical character is taken out of commission early on.
And what is causing all of this terror, you may ask? Well, it’s an organism named Calvin. Calvin is a real jerk, ingeniously designed to be both simple and quite threatening. The visual effects work here is quite strong and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey does a great job in finding the best ways to maximize the threat presented by this thing. The whole film, in general, looks pretty terrific for a one that feels a lot more low-key than it might in the hands of others. Still, when it comes to Calvin, there is little reason to want to root for further investigation of life elsewhere.
Calvin is such an intimidating little pest that I felt more invested than I perhaps would have been with these characters. As mentioned, the actors all do their best here, despite being fairly ill-defined. You get who they are based on a couple lines or the general attitudes they have. Gyllenhaal is as reliable as ever and Reynolds brings his typical charm, but I am a fan of Sanada in general and got just enough of the presence he brings. Even more rewarding were the performances from Bakare and Dihovichnaya, who I’m less familiar with.
It all amounts to a fairly confined thriller that plays well with the familiar premise. There’s a lot more showing off done here than we would have seen in the past, thanks to the ability to create so many wild visual effects, but it never feels like that’s taken for granted. The elements that need to have visual emphasis really work, the creepy monster is well done and the cast gets enough to do. We may just be seeing another monster stalk innocents in space, but I was impressed with how much I was caught up with the thrills seen. So all in all, Life found a way to get under my skin and satisfy.