Making its world premiere at SXSW a week before it opened nationwide, Daniel Espinosa‘s Life is a space-bound sci-fi thriller that incorporates aspects of Alien and Gravity to mostly thrilling effect.
A crew of six on an international space station is sent on a mission to retrieve soil specimens from Mars. They recover more than just dirt, however. Examining a sample under a microscope, lead scientist Hugh Derry (Aryion Bakare) sees something else, and soon has an alien organism growing behind the protective glass of a germ-free case.
The organism, which he christens Calvin, first seems to be a curious, playful wad of transparent silly putty, wrapping its tendrils around the scientist’s gloved fingers when he inserts them through the window of the case. It’s a strangely beautiful sequence.
But Calvin slips into hibernation, and Hugh decides to try to rouse it with an electrical prod. That’s when full survival mode kicks in. Easily crushing the scientist’s hand, the creature uses the prod to rip through his glove and escape into the body of the spacecraft.
Thereafter, the film becomes a creature-on-the-rampage thriller, but Espinosa’s welcome approach is that of sl0w-building suspense instead of the annoying pop-up scares made fashionable by the Paranormal Activity series. Seamus McGarvey‘s cinematography greatly enhances the suspense by way of long, continuous shots as his camera prowls the darkened ship. The special effects team does a terrific job with the creature, which grows at an alarming rate into an intelligent, diaphanous demon-lizard. The production design by Nigel Phelps is spectacular, and composer Jon Ekstrand contributes an appropriately retro, deep bass score.
Espinosa also draws committed performances from his cast, allowing enough character development to make each death truly tragic, and the script, by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (known for their satirical shockers Zombieland and Deadpool) is appreciably restrained. As can be expected, it’s Reynolds who delivers the wisecracks.
Every man and woman in the multinational crew has a strong personality and an opinion on how to take care of the situation, so of course bad decisions are going be made. Admittedly, Gyllenhaal’s third act revelation of how he can take care of it all is pretty fatuous, but by that time it’s too late — we’re all buckled in for the ride.
For fans of sci-fi and horror, Life can be best appreciated as an effective, old-fashioned hybrid — and it’s pretty damn scary, too.