Astronauts on the ISS capture a probe returning from Mars, which contains an alien. Their delight soon turns to horror when “Calvin”–so named by adorable schoolchildren as part of a public relations stunt–reveals itself a rapidly-gestating amoeba with a slasher mentality. The resulting carnage sets off decaying systems and a frantic struggle for survival, where Life submits audiences to a procession of unsettling sights and sounds: a woman drowning in her EVA suit after a coolant tank ruptures; Jake Gyllenhaal, wide-eyed and anemic, mumbling out a suicide plan; Ryan Reynolds coughing blood in zero-g as he’s devoured from the inside out (fodder is a role especially suited to him); and, of course, the creature itself, always moving, morphing, and hungry. Its ultimate form resembles a cephalopod with a Komodo dragon snout.
Daniel Espinosa’s film might charitably be considered paying homage to Alien (and borrows music cues from Prometheus), but its flourishes are less gothic than they are sadistic. For all the grace in Calvin’s forms, the emphasis isn’t on this inhuman entity, but the damage it can inflict, particularly to the flesh. There’s even a poor mouse, strapped in like a submissive in the same lab housing Calvin, its purpose seemingly a light snack when the creature inevitably busts loose. If anything, Life has more commonality with the kind of video nasties which lined the shelves back when Blockbuster was ubiquitous. Immediately springing to mind are titles like Xtro or Charles Band’s Parasite–which Espinosa lifts a shot from, when the crew discover something writhing within the pant leg of one of their own. Films which appropriated Alien‘s visual ideas about penetration and birth for the singular purpose of pushing the boundaries of makeup effects and good taste.
Here, that sort of nihilism gets a Hollywood sheen, complete with some accomplished effects work. Actors appear, effortlessly, to float through the confines of the set, while the creature is oily and tactile. Espinosa also hones in on the theme of containment. Key moments are framed from the viewpoint of characters watching from behind a pane of glass, a sleep pod’s door, or a hatch’s porthole. Calvin is locked inside a glass box within a sealed room for observation. Every action the crew takes, often at the recommendation of a CDC officer (Rebecca Ferguson, who starts as another Ellen Ripley, only to be reduced to a shrieking nonentity) is to ensure this wall of separation remains as the creature attempts to break free. When those walls go down is precisely when the tension ramps up, as the humans attempt to kill or outmaneuver the seemingly unstoppable Calvin. Over and over, Life arrives at chaos and death, presenting situations where our attempts at control invariably fail. While its beats are overly familiar and telegraphed (Gyllenhaal practically spells out the film’s twist ending), there’s something refreshing to a film this committed to human folly.