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Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Running time 103 minutes
Synopsis: An international space crew discovers life on Mars. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
After the atypically intelligent reflections on extra-terrestrial life that underpinned Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016) Daniel Espinosa’s film is a return to the pathologically murderous, slime-covered-creature-feature most iconically represented by Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). The resemblance is very close indeed and though that might constitute a weakness for fans of the genre who will have seen all the sequels and the variations on the theme like Scott’s own Prometheus (2012), as I have seen none of them and particularly as I haven’t seen Alien for a long time I was well satisfied with Life as a space horror B movie.
The film opens with an informal day-in-the-life-of-a-space-station sequence but when you see the crew coo-ing over the apparently simple life form they have retrieved from a Mars probe and in a very bad case of misguided anthropomorphism called Calvin you know that things are not going to last like this for long. Indeed the film doesn’t waste time before Calvin morphs into a very nasty piece of work and then it is just a question of will the crew kill Calvin before he kills them.
While I must admit I was struggling to follow the screenplay in places, especially the business about firewall protocols and the arrival of a Soyuz spaceship, the battle for survival is both tense and executed with technical flair in zero gravity with no weapons to speak of, giving the far-fetched scenario a good measure of credibility. To forestall any misgivings in this respect the sound design and Jon Ekstrand’s score add substantially to the visceral excitation.
The crew, played by Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya and Hiroyuki Sanada are all well-individuated personalities distinguished not just by their cultural diversity but by small touches of characterization in a nicely-balanced script by writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (they wrote 2016’s Deadpool in which Reynolds starred). Although Life is very much an ensemble film, Gyllenhaal and Ferguson get the main dramatic action although mercifully not in service of a shipboard romance with Gyllenhaal whose character has been traumatized by his time as a soldier in the Middle East even managing to work in some of his trademark intensity.
Although frankly not how I would choose to entertain myself, as space horror-cum-thrillers go Life is skillfully-realized and shrewdly economical and anyone looking for a proverbial white-knuckle ride shouldn’t be disappointed.