Life – Film Review
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds
by Roger Crow
“Mr Crow. Your chosen specialist subject is aliens on a spaceship movies”.
I’ve never been on Mastermind, and have no plans to be. But if John Humphrys wants to spend a while grilling me on the matter of ETs in an enclosed space, I could answer every question he threw at me. The genre is as old as the hills, from Howard Hawks’ classic The Thing From Another World to those gold standards of the genre, Alien and Aliens. The latter two set the bar so high for suspense and action that few film makers have topped it in the 31 years since James Cameron’s masterpiece was released. And of course without Ridley Scott’s 1979 groundbreaker, there would have been no Aliens.
All of which preamble brings us to Life, Daniel Espinosa’s new thriller which looks like a mash-up of Gravity and Alien. Going in I had zero expectations, especially based on the trailer in which one poor guy testing a Martian soil sample is grabbed by ‘Calvin’, the organism at the heart of the drama. (I’d actually walked past said guy, Ariyon Bakare, when he was filming Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell inside Wentworth Woodhouse a few years ago and will never forget his comment: “Ooh, journalists. I hope they’re nice journalists”).
“Simplicity is one of the film’s greatest assets”
Though Ryan Reynolds is a bigger name in Life, Bakare steals much of his thunder. He’s always been a solid actor in shows such as Doctors and Casualty, but to see him providing the necessary credibility as the science boffin who helps create Calvin, he deserves the lion’s share of the credit as a sort of orbiting Dr Frankenstein.
The plot is simple: the crew of the International Space Station collect a bunch of Martian soil samples; they test it for life; one of the samples grows into an organism and, well, you can guess the rest.
It’s that simplicity which is one of Life‘s greatest assets. The title is rubbish, especially as it may be confused with Anton Corbijn’s namesake James Dean drama from a couple of years ago or a BBC documentary.
“Takes me hours to recover”
The fact the ever reliable Jake Gyllenhaal is on board bodes well. The thespian is always terrific, so if anyone can add gravitas to a project it’s him. And while Reynolds (from Espinosa’s humdrum Safe House) adds appeal, it’s Rebecca Ferguson who’s most intriguing. Since her star-making turn in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, I’ve been hooked on her work, and here she is just as compelling.
So as I marvel at the impressive CGI effects and comparisons between Gravity and Alien start to fall by the wayside. It slowly dawns on me that I’m watching a Trojan horse of a movie. Life actually isn’t just a mash-up of those films, though it seems to be, but an episode of The Twilight Zone with the third act ramping up to an ending so affecting, it takes me hours to recover.
There’s perhaps no spoiler to reveal that not all of the crew survive the running time, but while Calvin wreaks havoc on the ISS, it’s his smartness that really appeals. Skittering around the ship like a face hugger from the Alien saga, it does whatever it can to survive, and when a couple of protagonists come up with a plan to get rid of it, that’s when things get really interesting.
“Could be the sci-fi thriller of the year”
As the finale unfolds, I come up with two plot developments: one would be a cop out and the other is so wonderfully dark, but unlikely, I can’t imagine Espinosa would execute it. I’ll obviously not reveal what happens, but the fact someone as jaded and yet addicted to the ’alien on a space ship’ genre as me was ‘pleasantly’ surprised by the rug-pulling third act means Espinosa just levelled up many times in my estimation. (Okay, imagine the opposite of pleasantly and you’ll be closer the mark).
Though it works perfectly as a standalone film, I wouldn’t mind a sequel. As fans wait for what looks like another derivative Alien prequel (yes, I’ll be there on the opening night as usual), I’m hoping Alien Covenant will repair some of the damage caused by the annoying Prometheus in 2012. But for now Life is the dark horse that could be THE sci-fi thriller of the year. And no one is more surprised by the fact than me.