REVIEW: Life (2017)

On the International Space Station, a team of astronauts and specialists receive soil samples from a Martian probe. Inside they discover proof of life on Mars: a single-celled organism. Once attempts to stimulate it result in the creature’s rapid growth, it breaks free of containment and begins killing the astronauts one by one.

Another day, another variation on Ridley Scott’s Alien. In this case Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) from a screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland), brings some fresh ideas and executions to the table. It is not the most original of films, but strong plotting, performances, direction, and visual effects all combine to make a satisfyingly tense monster movie. There is more than enough here to satisfy fans of the genre.

One of the best strategies to elevate a pulp genre film is to cast it with popular and particularly talented actors. Life manages to boost itself on the shoulders of Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Ryan Reynolds, as well as a strong supporting cast of less well-known performers including Ariyon Bakjare and Olga Dihovichnaya. No one delivers a bad turn, and their work goes a long way to making Life as entertaining as it is. It is good to see Reynolds, who usually sticks to comedies, playing something a little more dramatic for a change.

The Martian creature, nick-named “Calvin” early into the film, has a distinctive look and an original style. It is a strange cross between a starfish, a jellyfish, and a butterfly, and keeps growing and evolving its look as the crisis ensues. It is beautifully rendered in CGI, and benefits enormously from the zero-gravity ISS setting. One of the greatest challenges in rendering a CGI animal on screen is giving it an appropriate weight and connection with the ground: it is very easy to just miss that weight and throw the creation into the ‘uncanny valley’ where audiences instinctively reject how it looks. By setting the film entirely in a zero-gravity setting, Calvin is able to float smoothly and organically from scene to scene. The result is a monster that looks more visceral and believable than most – although sadly (and strangely) the floating blood in leaves in its wake does not feel too much more advanced than when the same effect was attempted more than 15 years earlier in Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Calvin’s behaviour during the film warrants note: it did not escape this viewer that it only shows aggression once its body has been stimulated with electric shocks.

Jon Ekstrand composes an unnerving and atonal score that stands apart from the usual classically-inspired soundtrack this kind of film receives. It adds tremendously to the film’s paranoid and unsettled tone, as the creature breaks loose from its containment and reveals itself capable of getting anywhere inside and outside of the station. The film also varies the order in which its human cast dies compared to the genre stereotype, making it much more of a guessing game as to who gets killed and in which order.

Life does not stray far from its science fiction/horror predators, but then it is not particularly trying to. It is a solid variation on a theme, designed to entertain a pre-determined crowd. Like Underwater – which I reviewed recently – it provides just enough of a variation to seem fresh and enjoyable. Another case of a film doing what it promises to its audience, no more and no less. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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