With another summer season of superheroes and rampaging robots just around the corner, here’s a very welcome gift in the form of a new, non-franchise science-fiction movie which, although there’s clearly elbow-room for a sequel, appears to be content to tell its gripping, pulse-quickening story and then get the Hell out. But we do use the word ‘new’ quite advisedly; in truth Life tells a sci-fi story we’ve seen literally dozens of times before in a lineage of titles which goes back to 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space and probably still most famously realised in 1979’s Alien. But a good story is always worth retelling and Life suggests that there’s still plenty to offer in primal tales of small groups of people trapped in enclosed spaces terrorised by something monstrous and extra-terrestrial.
A team of scientists aboard the International Space Station take custody of an alien organism collected from the barren surface of the planet Mars. Humanity rejoices. We are not alone! The organism – “all muscle, all brain, all eye” – is christened Calvin courtesy of a school competition and is subjected to rigorous testing by the scientists, and our genre foreknowledge warns us that this might not be the most sensible course of action. When the creature – little more than a lump of twitching, trembling goo – appears to become inert, one of the scientists decides to jab it with an electric prod to wake it from its spacey slumbers. Seriously bad idea. All Hell quite literally breaks loose as the creature explodes back into…well, life…and plunges the scientific team into a nightmare which threatens the safety of the Earth spinning slowly beneath them.
The mileage you get from Life depends on what you want from a science-fiction movie in which a voracious alien life-form causes havoc in a space station and, indeed, what you want from a science-fiction movie per se. If you’re after something cerebral and thought-provoking like Arrival you’ll need to look elsewhere because Life is clearly content to be nothing more and nothing less than a shameless regurgitation of ideas, characters and situations which we’ve seen a hundred times over. But sometimes that’s more than enough. This reviewer sat through Kong: Skull Island (twice – so far), inwardly purring at a movie which delivered exactly what it promised and with no pretensions towards being anything else. Life, too, dusts down decades-old ideas and delivers them cleanly, slickly and with the gloss and sheen that only modern CGI and filmmaking technology can provide. The alien – ultimately a thrashing mass of translucent tentacles – is a ferocious and formidable creature supernaturally resistant to both extreme heat and the unfathomable cold of the vacuum of space and it’s clearly determined to stay alive and thrive as it races around the dim corridors of the space station and, when it finds itself out in space, scuttling around the exterior like some ghastly outer space arachnid. Cinema has given us some extraordinary alien species over the years but this…thing…is right up there amongst the most chilling.
So there we have it. Monster loose in spaceship picks off the crew with deadly alacrity and quite a bit of icky body horror ensues. The characters are pretty thinly-sketched, of course, with Jake Gyllenhall giving a world-weary earnestness to his role as Dr. David Jordan, Rebecca Ferguson as tough, no-nonsense crew captain Dr. Miranda North and Ryan Reynolds delivering what’s likely to become his post-Deadpool default turn as the wise-cracking smart-arse Rory Adams. The script does just about enough for you to give a damn about what happens to them even if, you’ll not be surprised to learn, they’re all pretty much cannon fodder for the relentless, remorseless alien which will do everything in its unfathomable power to stay alive.
Life is unapologetically derivative – you’ll enjoy ticking off all the boxes and spotting all the similarities to other genre favourites (“That bit’s pure Quatermass!”, “There’s The Thing!”) and yet it’s still an edge-of-the-seat thrill ride, visually stunning, impressively performed (the small cast simulating weightlessness throughout the movie) and although you might spend the entire running time wondering if and when it’s going to offer up something, anything, we haven’t seen before, we think we can guarantee that the ending will blow your sci-fi socks off, even if you’re smart enough to see it coming a few minutes earlier. It’s Life, then, almost exactly as we know it – and it’s really rather brilliant in its own way.
LIFE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: DANIEL ESPINOSA / SCREENPLAY: RHETT REESE, PAUL WERBECK / STARRING: JAKE GYLLENHALL, REBECCA FERGUSON, RYAN REYNOLDS, ARIYON BAKARE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected rating: 8/10