From the film’s seamless opening sequence which sets up its dramatic events into motion – shot in, around and through the international space station in a Gravity-esque single take – to its tight and almost claustrophobic scenes of terror that unravel, Life takes you on a journey of survival, for both its human and alien counterparts. It’s a journey not just in narrative, but in style as the film progresses from smart sci-fi intrigue, to genuine terror, to clichéd horror before heading back towards smarter territory for its pulsating ending. The film embraces both the vastness of space and the loneliness of the space station while also leaving you feeling just as trapped and helpless as its characters as the events unfold.
The events focus on the age-old story of mankind discovering what they believe to be the first signs of alien life from Mars. It is up to a mixed nationality team of scientists aboard the international space station to investigate the dormant microscopic organism found in a sample of Martian soil and hope to gain new understanding about life in the cosmos. The end result though is that they certainly learn the value of life as the organism awakens, grows and becomes hostile in a game of who can out-survive the other.
Life starts out as a slow brooding sci-fi story as we get to know our rag-tag team of scientists, which include your typically clichéd stereotypes of a nerd with far too much dedication to his job, a wise-cracking practical joker out to have a good time, a scientist overly concerned about protocol and a stubborn astronaut who prefers life on space to the troubles of Earth. They’re familiar character tropes we’ve seen in movies before, but the story subtly introduces you to their different characteristics to help you connect with each of them. The start can be a little slow, but remains compelling and an important part of the story as this development sets the scene for understanding their different behaviours later in the film.
Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) does a stellar job of ensuring the tension of the film remains taut as scenes never over-stay their welcome and moments of respite are brief enough to give you a sense of relief without taking away the terror that inevitably comes around. The film sadly does move into predictable and often-times silly territory when the supposed scientists do stupid things in their desperation for survival. What makes Life stand out from the host of other sci-fi horrors though are the moral complications it brings up as the scientists realize that the need to keep the ever-evolving alien life-form from reaching Earth is perhaps even more important than their own survival. This conflict is played out well as different characters wrestle with the dilemma.
Another strength of the film is its evolving alien being. What starts out as a single celled organism evolves as the team experiments with it or tries to kill it and as much as its continual transformation frightens you, its behavior and urgent need for survival is equally understandable. While it remains an intelligent species throughout, oddly the being does lose some of its terror when they attempt to inject some personality into it in the film’s latter stages. Life is actually more terrifying when they remove you from the alien species and focus on the distress of its human characters who try to find new ways of containing or killing off the creature.
The accomplished cast of Jake Gyllenhall, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya all do a sterling job at sticking to their character portraits and convince in playing out their desperation. The emotion is further supported by a score that remains subtle and understated at many of the films narrative moments, but rises to a rousing crescendo when needed that does a superb job of keeping you drawn to your seats.
As for the more sci-fi related aspects of the film, the visual design of the film is sublime. The space station is well created and the camera work in particular in navigating the tight set is superbly done. The angles and movement of some of the extended shots in the film add to the realism and authenticity of the experience which remains an important part of the atmosphere in the film. Life also makes use of a lot of practical effects which further adds to its authenticity. Similarly, the cinematography is strong, as the film navigates between dark and light moments well without ever losing sight of the characters and the events in motion.
Life is not the second coming of sci-fi horror films nor the smartest film you’re going to see this year as it falls prey to far too many pitfalls of its genre. It definitely keeps you enthralled throughout its journey though, and in the end, much like its alien predator, the film will leave you gasping for air at all the right moments.