There’s nothing terribly original about Life. Quite the reverse: you’re likely to suffer recurring déjà vu at its frequent employment of familiar tropes and plot devices. For much of the running time, however, that scarcely matters, so efficient is Daniel Espinosa’s direction and the conviction with which his cast runs through its paces. As Alien/The Thing/Prometheus knock-offs go, this isn’t going to break any moulds for depicting a newly-discovered lifeform running amok despite a highly trained and disciplined team rigorously observing protocols that would contain such a contingency. But then, it was never going to be that kind of movie.
Some may, as a result, find Life increasingly exasperating for the ISS crew’s sometimes blockheaded decisions, but I was mostly happy to go with the flow – hey, I’m the guy who likes Prometheus – and I found the first hour, in particular, to be a tense, claustrophobic ride, even as I was inwardly shaking my head at well-worn no-nos such as breaking quarantine (Alien) and never, ever, whatever you do, touching the newly-discovered sentient alien life form like it’s a cute ickle baba (Prometheus). Using flamethrowers in such an environment – definitely not an arena the size of the Nostromo – also seems entirely foolhardy. But, if you can get past the lip service paid to verisimilitude, many of the slowly-whittled crew’s subsequent actions appear, if not entirely reasonable, at least not risible.
Life (perhaps the least commanding title one could imagine for such a movie, which is neither starring Eddie Murphy nor about the guy who photographed James Dean) admittedly retreats to more pedestrian thrills once we’ve become familiar with the creature’s general proportions (think vicious starfish-cum-octopus) and modus operandi, as the crew float fraughtly through a succession of opening and closing hatches while attempting to avoid/lure it.
Espinosa and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland, Deadpool) have a number of tricks up their sleeves, such that, while you’re never in doubt on the general trajectory, it isn’t always evident what order the characters are going to peg it. I was fairly satisfied Ryan Reynolds was going to exit early on – the big/recognisable name in a Janet Leigh/John Hurt moment – purely because he seems to have a thing for that of late, but the biologist (Ariyon Bakare of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), earmarked by the trailers as an early casualty and whose obsessiveness brings this down on everyone (if there’s any lesson here, and it’s thin, it’s the old one of the dangers of unchecked scientific inquiry), survives for much longer than anyone probably expected.
So too, in these movies the creatures are usually vulnerable to fire, but it’s established early on that being flambéed is not going to kill the thing (Calvin) even if it doesn’t much like it. And, in contrast to the tendency to keep such finds top secret for bioweapons divisions, the discovery of life on Mars is announced across the globe immediately (as if!)
The cast don’t have much to work with, character-wise (you know the writers aren’t exactly stretching themselves when their choice of Jake Gyllenhaal’s backstory is PTSD resulting from the most recent US conflict, so Syria in this instance), but play their parts with sufficient conviction that the minimalism is more a help than a hindrance.
Reynolds is surely improv-ing during his scenes, as he’s the only one whose dialogue has any spark, but it’s Rebecca Ferguson’s quarantine officer who brings the most to the scenario. Gyllenhaal does his intense-stare thing, but without anywhere productive to channel it (apart from Goodnight Moon), while Bakare brings the right air of blinkered tunnel vision to his early scenes. Olga Dihovichnaya and Hroyuki Sanada, as the captain and the system engineer respectively, make less of an impression, although I could have done without the unsubtle paralleling of the latter’s wife giving birth with the “baby” on the station.
Technically, Life is first rate, the simulated weightlessness never in question and never slowing down the picture. Sure, some of the CGI is obvious when it comes to exterior carnage, and the creature is never in any danger of becoming an iconic design, but generally there’s a pleasing sense of grounding to the environment (albeit, they’re in a luxuriously roomy ISS, complete with sleeping pods and escape capsules). There’s also a disturbingly convincing rat absorption that far outweighs any minor upset over actual humans being slain.
As I say, once the picture has established the parameters of its threat and we’re faced with the usual configuration of evacuate/prevent Calvin reaching civilisation/self-sacrifice, I was quite prepared for Life to have done all it was going to, interest-wise, and that we were set for a standard ending in which Jake heroically sacrifices himself while Rebecca escapes to Earth. I foresaw few potential variations (such as: Fergusson having to dispose of the creature herself when it gets wise to Gyllenhaal’s plan, or when his pod veers off course, she has to course correct with her own, so they both expire). As a consequence, I was genuinely impressed by the apocalyptically bleak ending, one that retrospectively ups the game of the entire picture.
It’s isn’t as if you don’t get these sorts of dread climaxes (they’re commonplace in zombie movies), but in this context, it’s the sort of resolution you’d be more likely to discover as a rejected alternate on the DVD release. It’s especially notable for how much investment has clearly been put into it, not only for the dexterity of the fake out (we think Jake’s heading into space, and Rebecca to Earth, when its vice versa), but also for leaving both its doomed protagonists alive in the final shots. And that’s without Jon Ekstrand’s overwhelming ‘You’re all doomed!” score.
Espinosa’s direction is considerably more focussed and fluid than we’ve seen from his Hollywood excursions thus far, going some way towards making up for the mess that was Child 44 (although, with that cast and story potential, it does represent a significant demerit). He only occasionally appears to lose his bearings (the scene of the Soyuz docking seems to have some material missing, as Calvin attacking its crew appears only in long shots).
So yeah, Life isn’t going to win any awards for creativity or inspiration, or any awards for anything much. But as endings go, it’s armed with a doozy that should ensure a healthy post-theatrical life (it appears to have been rather ignored in cinemas). Maybe it’s just as well it won’t make enough money for an ill-advised sequel… Although, as ill-advised sequels go, that’s one movie I’d kind of like to see.