If there’s one thing that Daniel Espinosa’s Life makes clear, it’s how thin the line between fear and hope is. For the six astronauts on the International Space Station who have the task of assessing a sample of material from Mars, there is the hope that they will discover that life exists away from Earth. For us, the viewer, that same hope is amplified to the point where it is represented as fear – fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of the never ending void that is space. The hope of discovery still remains, but all the bundled nerve anxiety of hyped up anticipation and uncertainty muddles the hope into an unsettled pool of unease.
Unfairly shafted on its initial release, Life is a horrifically entertaining sci-fi horror film that ekes out every possible moment of tension from a deceptively simple premise. While audiences appear to cry out for more original content as the overwhelming sea of Disneyfication storms on like an angry Veruca Salt demanding that they ‘want it all’, Life somehow managed to find itself without an audience. Look, I’m partially to blame for this, as for some reason, I scoffed at the notion of seeing (what I unfairly assumed to be) another Alien knockoff.
While Life does carry some of those genre staples that Ridley Scott’s classic helped establish, it presents them with a wealth of care and complexity. Under the initial guidance of Exobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), the Martian microbe is coaxed from a dormant state into life. Gradually, it grows into a multi-celled organism which – thanks to schoolchildren on Earth – is named ‘Calvin’. As the crew on the ISS monitor its rapid growth, a mishap occurs which requires Calvin to be ‘shocked’ back to life with the assistance of a mini-cattle rod like device. Before you can say ‘oh, that’s a bad idea’, Calvin manages to escape its secure containment box, and starts to do what every threatened creature would try and do – survive.
With thanks to the superb script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, Life is full of a cast of competent and career driven characters, with each one clearly outlining their position on the ISS, and each one prioritising their core objectives over base human emotions. The cast is diverse, reflecting the true nature of what the ISS would look like. Great performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Kiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dykhovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare, and Ryan Reynolds, help create the feeling that this is a team that has been isolated in space for an extended period of time. There’s no manufactured tension, or out of character idiocy (here’s looking at you Prometheus), just a team of talented people thrust into a horrible situation and forced to try and survive. As Calvin grows, and the threat amplifies, the realisation that the surviving members need to do whatever they can to stop this being from getting to Earth becomes paramount.
Life operates in much the same way as the growth pattern of Calvin – at first, it’s small and innocuous, then it grows into overwhelming chaos and gore, managing to surprise and shock in unsettling ways. What makes Life work as well as it does is the way that logic is implemented into the narrative. There’s a clear ‘if this, then that’ at work that is clearly thought out, with the narrative being allowed to play out to its natural conclusion. So often you can feel the hand of the filmmaker forcing a story to a conclusion that they want to see, rather than allowing the narrative to unfurl in a natural way, but that’s not the case here.
The next part of the review will stumble into spoiler territory. I want to stress, Life is a film that is definitely worth watching, and it’s certainly a film that’s best going into not knowing the conclusion.