Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson head the cast of Daniel Espinosa's latest, a sci-fi horror that has a lot of guts, a little less originality, but enough twists, turns, and shocking visuals to fester more than just mere fascination.
With a title like Life, the film it boasts could entail any or all of the following: A romantic drama about two now-elderly childhood sweethearts who must face the ever-impending threat of being torn apart from each other by death; a children’s cartoon following some sort of happy-go-lucky, anthropomorphic animal that realises it must cherish the days it has on this earth, and the people around it; an apocalyptic zombie flick with more or less the same plot as World War Z; a dystopian spectacle following one man who unlocks the secret to time-travel; or a rip-roaring, rib-tickling comedy (possibly black) unravelling the future of two dim-witted palaeontologists in a museum that ends with one of them saying with a crass wink, ‘Ayy, that’s life!’.
Yes, it’s unsurprising to think that whilst any film ever could be titled such an original gem, such a film must fulfil one criterion: that of being, at least in part and preferably wholeheartedly, about death. That one film that came out last week which has only gone and taken such a name, has also, unsurprisingly, taken such paradoxical logic with it. Which is good, because whilst death reigns supreme over its narrative, the film proves itself worthy of having an extortionate amount of life pumped into it. Which is also good, because without it, it would fade into the realm of bland sci-fi horrors that we all forget about soon enough. Which wouldn’t be good at all.
Comparisons to Ridley Scott’s Alien are inevitable. I won’t bother listing them here, but keep in mind that whilst Daniel Espinosa’s seventh directorial effort blends several aspects of Scott’s masterpiece seemingly ‘just because Alien did it, and did it well,’ Life never strays into a pretence of absolute originality. From the very first titlecard of ‘L I F E’ which splays apart each letter much in a similar vein to Scott’s 1979 effort, we know we’re witnessing a homage to the best of the best of the rest of sci-fi. But with undoubtable original and effective efforts proving its worth as an original set-piece, the opening one-shot sequence of the ‘capture’ of a space probe returning from Mars a fitting instance, or the genuinely thrilling enough-but-not-too-much gore littered over the film’s 103-minute run-time, it’s difficult to label Life as less than what it is: a brilliant, oftentimes stunning, horror, which just so happens to be set in space and have an all-star headed cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ariyon Bakare, and Ryan Reynolds.
Following a small multi-national crew tasked with examining a soil sample the probe has brought back, it’s only too soon that they discover evidence of extra-terrestrial life. In a somewhat dreary first half an hour crammed with exposition, the various predominant character details that may or may not save them at a later time, and the introduction of Calvin. Calvin, a name literally meaning ‘bald’ or ‘hairless’ (take from that about the alien what you will), is the organism Hugh Derry (Bakare) extracts from the sample and which, in a well-orchestrated but inescapably cheesy sequence, the ‘school children of earth’ name it. But, fortunately for us, it doesn’t take long for panic to set in. Calvin grows and learns quickly, first responding to small stimuli before demonstrating advanced problem-solving skills. Which can’t be a good sign – especially when it uses those newfound skills to escape.
Life brandishes some of the most thrilling and intense scenes of recent horror that I’ve seen in a long time. That escape scene is one of them. As Derry’s hand is crushed and mangled by Calvin’s grip (“it’s all muscle, all brain, all eye” Miranda (Ferguson) mutters forebodingly) and Rory (Reynolds) enters to save him before being attacked himself, so unfolds such a splendidly filmed sequence of events that edge-of-your-seat might be more of an understatement than any accurate description. It’s an adrenaline padded rollercoaster, and it doesn’t stop here.
As Calvin roars over and around the International Space Station in search of food, i.e. the crew, the gradually dwindling crew roar, firstly, far, far away from it, before roaring straight towards it in the hopes of capturing it and sending it into deep space, i.e. to save all LIFE on Earth. It’s a feat which takes up a great deal of the film’s second act, and consists of a lot of racing through shafts and dramatically shutting doors as Calvin splatters against them. As far as narratives go, this one’s a tad repetitive, but it also serves to heighten its claustrophobia. Never do we get sent back to Earth to uncover the reaction of the LIFE so precariously kept in the balance, we stay as much in zero-gravity as the six-membered team themselves, often shot with long-takes and a drifting camera to mimic their movements. There’s no turning back now – we’re in it as much as they are.
Time rolls by and more and more crew members get picked off by the ever-evolving Calvin. And what a climax it builds up to. It’s an impressive feat to achieve to create an ending that can be seen a mile off, and is, logically, the most entertaining and engaging way to end the film having seen two-thirds of it, but still be able to make those final few minutes utterly engaging, utterly focused, and utterly awe-inspiring, packing no less of a punch than if it was unexpected. And with such a talented cast, solid story and fantastic visuals, it isn’t hard to see the LIFE that’s gone into Life. It’s far from the romantic drama, or the cartoon, or outrageous comedy that its title teased it could be, but it fulfils that same criteria. Life is, by all means, about death. But damn, if they weren’t some well-orchestrated deaths.
Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa, is distributed by Columbia Pictures. Certificate 15.