When it comes to genre films, sometimes the same-old, same-old is good enough. That’s how it goes with Life, Hollywood’s newest variation on the Holy-crap-there’s-a-people-eating-alien-aboard-our-spaceship subgenre that kicked off with It! The Terror From Beyond Space, that bargain-basement 1958 movie that found full, malevolent bloom 21 years later as a major influence on the still-unmatched original Alien. The years since Ridley Scott’s gut-bursting masterpiece have brought us, for better or worse, Alien sequels, a spinoff and Alien-influenced sci-fi thrillers—Predator, The Thing and Leviathan among them. They all pretty much exploit the basic idea of a monster on the loose in confined quarters, and they’re all spins on Agatha Christie’s classic mystery And Then There Were None.
True to form, the main action of Life opens with its interstellar crew, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya, making what appears to be a game-changing discovery: the capturing of soil samples from the surface of Mars. With life wriggling and writhing in it, no less. Broadcasting the big news to scientists and earthlings below sparks New Year’s Eve-style gatherings in Times Square and elementary school kids nicknaming the ‘Martian’ Calvin in honor of the 30th U.S. president. But Calvin’s got some surprises in store for the crew as it begins to demonstrate its capacity to watch, see, learn and rapidly grow bigger, stronger and deadlier.
Most of the running time of Life is devoted to the multi-tentacle Calvin chasing the weightless crew around their spacecraft and laying waste to them in retaliation for a series of spectacular, derivative set pieces involving their futile attempts to fry it, zap it and expose it to subzero temperatures. That’s really the whole extent of the plot fabricated by Deadpool and Zombieland screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, so if you’re expecting more in the way of character development, big themes, the gonzo humor that helped put the writers on the map or things we haven’t already seen in Alien and Gravity, this isn’t the horror show for you.
Sure, Life has a laugh or two, mostly thanks to Ryan Reynolds taking out his mouthy a-hole screen persona for a quick run, but the movie is a mostly straight-up thriller that runs low on rocket fuel even at only 100 minutes. Yet so long as you’re not expecting life-changing sci-fi, it’s still a rattling, rocking good time at the movies. It looks handsome and stylish thanks to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Nocturnal Animals); it features an uncomfortably claustrophobic production design by Nigel Philips; it sounds knowingly and insanely hyper because of Jon Ekstrand’s musical score; and it’s directed by gifted Swede Daniel Espinosa (the woeful Child 44), who regularly amps up the tension to squirmy intensity but also knows when to let things chill the hell out.
The actors are right there with him every second, determined to fill in where the script goes thin and sketchy, especially because its characters are created basically to convince us that although they’re super smart, they’re just not smart enough to stop making moronic decisions that lead to messy, heroic deaths. No performance leaps out of the gifted ensemble, but Gyllenhaal scores because he puts his big-eyed, emotional intensity and sensitivity up front to convincingly play a traumatized military medic who may have been circling the outer limits on too many missions for way too long. The smart, complex Ferguson registers, too, as an intelligent, by the books CDC expert.
We won’t spoil the secret of which cast members survive, but nothing about Life should surprise anyone who has paid even minimal attention to sci-fi movies made in the past 50 years. So, no, Life isn’t Alien or Gravity. It’s more like a jumped-up It! The Terror From Beyond. Take it for what it is, though, and it might give you a good laugh and jolt now and then.