Calvin is a pulsating and terrifying Martian-octopus. He comes to life aboard the International Space Station, after scientist Hugh Derry (Arion Bakare) nurses the beast from a suspended flagellum to a virtually invincible, shockingly bloodthirsty beast. Calvin’s progression from scientific marvel—the celebrated first evidence of life on another planet—to tentacled, sharp-toothed supervillain propels Daniel Espinoza’s terrifying “Life,” a bald-faced “Alien” send-up that succeeds largely on the impressive and understated rendering of its central alien.
Like Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film, “Life” explores the compromises that a crew must make as it navigates a vessel infected by a hostile extra-terrestrial intruder. The international crew of initially awed astronauts—led by the serious David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), outgoing Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), and calculating Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson)—push the limits of their ship’s technological capabilities and their own psyches as they dodge Calvin, discuss the existential implications of his unclear motivations for killing, and watch the bizarre amphibian tear their crewmates to gory shreds. Despite its genre trappings, “Life” avoids becoming a retread of an established cinematic formula of existential science fiction, bolstering Calvin’s brilliant CGI rendering to generate legitimate surprises and bringing up salient questions about our collective fetishism toward alien life forms and the universality of cutthroat Darwinian principles.
Near the beginning of “Life,” Espinosa, a Swedish director relatively new to English-language features, offers only fleeting glimpses of civilization back on our pale blue dot. The astronauts, having recently acquired pieces of martian dirt, watch in awe as Hugh adjusts temperatures and chemicals in the Space Station’s lab to spark a seemingly-deceased cell into being, thus signaling the beginning of humanity’s interaction with alien life forces. The being, initially resembling a slimily transparent flower, is undeniably cute, grabbing onto the scientist’s metallic wand and dancing about its airtight chamber. Soon, the astronauts have hooked up to a slightly-futuristic Skype, which they use to beam the new being onto the buildings of a subtly-updated Times Square, where thousands of revelers cheer on the arrival of a new epoch. The shot, complete with a subtle “9G” smartphone advertisement and an array of full-building, interlocking video monitors, highlights Espinoza’s keen eye for technological reference. Once Calvin begins his reign of terror, Espinosa employs another subtly futurological tool—a 3D holographic map at the ship’s center of each crew member’s location vis à vis their tormentor—both to further suggest the contours of his speculative technology and to provide an interior device for understanding the layout of the station.
Where Espinosa impressively places his thriller in a plausible and understated near-future, his actors populate his universe with an understated naturalism that makes the film’s bloodiness all the more terrifying. Gyllenhaal gives a particularly impressive performance as David, a veteran of a seemingly expanded Syrian conflict who moves with a tired but sympathetic grace suggestive of his wariness of earth. After Calvin breaks out of his terrarium and begins his pursuit of the crew’s bodies, David reacts with an icy, profoundly relatable fear, quickly giving out directives and hypothesizing strategies for barricading the creature with whispered intensity. Gyllenhaal’s unique ability to appear simultaneously ready to die and able to defend himself is on thrilling display. Bakare plays the scientist Hugh—a British paraplegic who increasingly regrets his sparking Calvin with life as an unforgivable, Frankensteinian act—with a tenderness that makes his self-loathing incredibly sad to watch. The other players, with the exception of the jokester Reynolds, are almost antiseptically professional even in crisis, but their focus ultimately heightens the tension despite leaving their characters a bit flat. “Life” has no ambition to be an ensemble character study, but it works well as a chase movie with a selective emotional conscience.
A bit of fatigue eventually sets in after the tenth iteration of disaster: The fuel runs out, the heat turns off, a simple spacewalk turns into an inner-helmet coolant drowning, and the crew’s desire to keep the bloodthirsty alien isolated from earth leaves them with few options but self-sacrifice, all while Calvin runs rampant and continues literally eating astronauts’ heads. Despite the drag of the chase, the set pieces are consistently clever and scary, Gyllenhaal remains charismatic, and every shot of Calvin, who continues to morph and grow into a more efficient and hefty killing machine, is more unsettling than the last. By the time the surviving humans finally seem in a position to kill their creation, the script seems headed toward a relieving and somewhat welcome resolution. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, however, completely pull the rug out in the last sequence of the film, offering a visually-stunning twist that makes the atrophying relentlessness of the film’s second act seem a necessary interlude that provokes viewers to let their guards down before a shattering end.
“Life” is not a particularly profound science fiction offering when stacked up against the likes of “Ex Machina” or “The Martian”, but Espinosa’s eye for the near-future, Calvin’s infectious sliminess, Gyllenhaal’s reliable intensity, and the screenwriters’ third-act magic make the film genuinely scary and often beautiful.
—Staff writer David J. Kurlander can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.