I love a good survival movie, especially the And Then There Were None model married to creature feature. The seminal ones for me are Alien and The Thing, but I even, maybe especially, knockoffs like Leviathan, Deep Rising, Deep Blue Sea. The great thing about imitators is that it can call attention in the present to the forerunners in the past. Alien did that with Lovecraft, The Thing as a remake of the 1951 feature The Thing from Another World (itself an adaptation of a novella by John W. Campbell, Jr.). With so many familiar tropes stamped by predecessors, it can be hard to stand out nowadays. Life doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it takes it and gives it a worthy spin.
The film follows six astronauts aboard the International Space Station, who are tasked with retrieving a returning Martian rover and analyzing its samples for signs of extraterrestrial life. They succeed on both counts, to terrifying effect. They discover the alien lifeform is an all-brain, all-muscle nigh-indestructible creature responsible for wiping out life on Mars millennia ago. Naturally, the creature gets loose and violent with the crew, picking them off one by one as they try their damnedest not only to survive, but to prevent it from reaching Earth.
Life is the kind of mid-budget genre picture we’re seeing less and less of. It’s well-aware of its origins but its refreshingly subtle with its knowledge, taking the familiar structure of this type of film and revives them better than Ridley Scott did in his 2012 return to the Alien franchise Prometheus (hopes are high for his May sequel Alien: Covenant). The movie is refreshing by simply being good. It cuts to the chase from the start and the plot proceeds in an organic and engrossing way. There are few, if any, decisions by characters that feel unnatural. It’s tightly constructed as a film, perhaps even to its detriment. That said, the film’s focus and slow-then-relentless pace signals the filmmakers understand the story they’re telling and know how best to tell it to audiences.
Jake Gyllenhaal as David Jordan, a combat medic about to break the record for longest time in space, and Rebecca Ferguson as CDC scientist Miranda North are great leads and make the most of their parts, embodying the former’s detachment and the latter’s determination. Ryan Reynolds is along for the ride as technician Rory Adams, bringing his trademark charm and snark. The Wolverine‘s Hiroyuki Sanada, who also starred in Sunshine, a recent cult classic in the space thriller oeuvre, is an always welcome addition to the cast. Olga Dihanovichnaya and Ariyon Bakare round out the cast with aplomb as the commander and science officer, respectively.
Each member is given the briefest moment or two, but they make them count. Screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick rise to the challenge of developing doomed characters; they know we need to care about them at least a little before they start dropping like flies. Better yet, they know how to do it economically. The character development is a little spare but that’s expected by the lean editing. What’s there is incorporated well into the action of each scene. Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House, Child 44) impresses from the get-go with a long tracking shot in zero-gravity, which the cast is in for the majority of the film. The work of Seamus McGarvey, cinematographer behind The Avengers and Godzilla, makes the most of its setting.
The creature itself is initially quite plain, by virtue of its single cell nature. It evolves into a protoplasmic octopus and then starts following movie monster rules into a more traditional shape. Personally, I appreciated the shift and went with it, even if its scientifically pointless. It never took me out of the movie. In fact, because the creature’s intelligence grows along with its body, I fully went with its evolution, which has an intriguing arc of its own. Its kills are appropriately gruesome and are never throwaways. Part of the appeal of these movies is seeing what happens to people in a pressure-cooker, when the chips are down. And, of course, if we like and/or empathize with them, we want them to survive.
You can see the strains of its influences in its story and structure but it is never overt. Because of Reese’s and Wernick’s work on such meta-referential works like Zombieland and Deadpool, it’s easy to imagine a version of this movie that plays up even more its allusions. But they and Espinosa wisely keep the awareness subtle, giving them leeway in moments when characters’ make an impulsive choice. The awareness doesn’t exist so much in its characters as in the intelligence of its telling. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ending. The filmmakers wisely save their boldest choice for last and, like good cinema, retroactively makes previous frames and sequences more meaningful.
My fandom around such pictures makes me both predisposed to them and their biggest critic, if they besmirch one of my favorite subgenres. When I was a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was acting out stories with Legos and K’Nex. Similar to the recent flick Kong: Skull Island, the genuine passion and competence give the films their strength. Beyond personal gripes, I’m happy to say Life is a worthwhile time at the movies. It doesn’t zig-zag as much as it could, but it’s hard to fault a good movie for not being great.