The days are long gone when all Martians are little green men who come in peace, a notion that Life further exemplifies.
Even if it feels like a high-concept piece of Alien fan fiction, this taut and stylish thriller generates some solid intragalactic tension during its battle between humans versus extraterrestrials, in which we’re the visiting team.
The story follows six astronauts aboard the International Space Station, on a mission to retrieve soil samples from the surface of Mars. After Rory (Ryan Reynolds) accomplishes that feat, an analysis of those samples reveals a tiny living organism.
The group begins some experiments, feeding the creature glucose and adopting it almost as a mascot, named Calvin. But after the shapeshifting alien outgrows its test tube and gains strength and intelligence — taking the form of a octopus of sorts — the curiosity of the astronauts quickly turns to fear.
As their colleagues begin meeting Calvin’s wrath, the resourceful David (Jake Gyllenhaal) and resilient Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) realize they must stifle its growth by depriving it of oxygen without endangering themselves, or their chances of eventually returning to Earth.
It’s pretty derivative stuff that manages to rise above the fray thanks to some credible performances, visual flourishes, and an attention to science more than just cheap scares.
As directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), the film manages to prey upon common fears, whether the unpredictability of the rapidly evolving intruder or the claustrophobic confines of the space station itself. The camera glides through narrow corridors in a way that emphasizes the tight quarters and zero-gravity environment on board.
The uneven screenplay by the tandem of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool) throws around enough knowledge of microbiology, astrophysics, and outer-space travel to make the scientific discovery hold audience interest. There’s even a cool sequence in which Calvin suffocates a mouse.
However, the intellect steadily declines in the second half of the film, both in the script and among the characters, as the proceedings descend into a chaotic fight for survival — complete with monster-movie clichés and a gimmicky twist ending.
Life might be inferior to other stranded-astronaut movies in recent years, but at least this latest addition to the science-fiction subgenre isn’t completely lost in space.