*** out of ****
(for strong language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror)
Released: March 24, 2017
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare
- “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” – Ash, from Alien (1979)
I have to confess: that sentiment by Ian Holm‘s synthetic Hyperdyne Systems model genuinely applies to this cold, calculating, surface-level movie, too – and it’s a virtue. Once you get past the fact that Life is completely unoriginal, it’s pretty easy to get swept up in the ride of this extremely well made terror-in-space thriller.
As generic a plot as the title itself, Life transcends its Alien knockoff premise by being a pure, finely-tuned genre exercise rendered with consistently high degrees of visual sophistication. Swedish director (of Chilean heritage) Daniel Espinosa takes his middling career to another level, even with a brazen retread like this, by mastering Ridley Scott-inspired craft (along with doses of Kubrick) instead of simply mimicking it.
It’s the near future. An international space station off the stratosphere of Mars has just recovered the first alien lifeform – albeit microscopic – from that planet’s surface, and now the team is studying it. The creature doesn’t stay microscopic for long. Horror ensues, and gore along with it.
Life never goes outside the confines of its very specific plot box, attempting absolutely zero thematic subtext, as the boa-constricting octopus alien (with the speed and resilience of a cockroach) picks off astronauts one by one – not necessarily in the predictable ascending order of the cast’s star power – and in pretty gruesome fashion.
Yet it’s clear why talents like Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, and the rest signed on: Espinosa is a really gifted filmmaker, and he fulfills the taut vision he obviously sold his cast on.
Espinosa doesn’t cheat on the commitment to stay in zero gravity for the entire run time. More impressively, he caters his style to that reality. With long, uncut, floating takes (there’s a 5-minute one early on), Espinosa basks in sci-fi grandeur while also building tension. The aesthetic ramps up as the action does, too, but it never breaks from Espinosa’s established control and precision.
Much like the recent Kong: Skull Island, the level of filmmaking here is so refined, specific, and impressively assured that it virtually begs for relevant, topical parallels or philosophical profundity. But just because a film isn’t deep doesn’t mean it can’t be smart, and Life constructs, expands, and crescendos its plot machine in first-rate fashion, capping things off with a pulse-pounding third act that won’t let up.
Life doesn’t reinvent any wheels, nor does it aspire to. Its goals are simple and straightforward yet executed with rigor, not laziness. A lack of richer, multiple layers keeps the experience from resonating or lingering, its alien creature (while effectively realized) doesn’t come close to the iconic status of that classic disemboweling chestburster, and you won’t leave giddy for sequels, but darned if this isn’t the absolute best version of exactly what you’re expecting.