“Life” spends its first act building up some big ideas, but eventually unravels into another monster movie in space. The story follows the crew of the International Space Station on a special mission to find evidence of alien life among dirt samples retrieved by a Mars lander. Believe or not, they find it — which is just enough buildup to unleash a serviceable “Alien” knock-off in disguise.
But that’s not the only sci-fi hit to which “Life” owes its existence. Director Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”) imbues the otherworldly setting with a visual flair right out of the “Gravity” playbook. The movie opens with mission specialist Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), who has a penchant for derring-do and always has a one-liner handy, undergoing a spacewalk captured in an ambitious long take. As the camera roves through the zero-gravity corridors of the station, peeking out windows at the black void, we meet the rest of the crew. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been in space longer than any human ever, and he seems to prefer it there. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) is a microbiologist who maybe knows a bit more about the mission than David, so they naturally clash later on.
Once the dirt samples are loaded onboard, lead scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) slaps them under a microscope and quickly discovers a dormant single-celled organism. That’s just enough information for the media frenzy to begin back on Earth, where celebrations are ubiquitous, and the whole crew takes part in remote interviews. A schoolgirl in Times Square dubs the little cell “Calvin,” and the name takes off; soon, so does the critter. After Hugh figures out the exact atmosphere to create in his miniature lab, Calvin wakes up, starts wiggling around…and begins to grow from one little cell into many more. After a mishap puts Calvin into a deep hibernation, Hugh tries to revive him with electricity, inadvertently creating his own Frankenstein’s monster. It doesn’t take much time for Calvin to go from slimy little starfish to rampaging monstrosity wreaking havoc across the ship.
Despite the hard science that dominates its first act, once “Life” careens into a brash survival story, it never slows down. As Calvin demolishes much of the space station, it’s just a matter of waiting to see who can survive the longest while figuring out how to smoke out the growing alien beast. They have no weapons that can work against him, and no way to reason with him, so the movie’s remaining entertainment value revolves around how the survivors can come up with clever traps before time runs out.
Gyllenhaal feels right at home in this bleak sci-fi setting, with a frantic performance reminiscent of his turn in “Source Code.” Whenever his David talks about life on Earth we get a brief respite from the pulsing action scenes. His memories of the war in Syria that propelled him into space work —where he doesn’t have to deal with the atrocities down below — strike a surprisingly poignant note. By contrast, Reynolds provides some much-needed levity, delivering his now-signature quips. Riding high on “Deadpool” fame, he’s clearly found his groove.
From a purely technical perspective, “Life” hits the market standard for impressive effects work across the board. However, its narrative can’t keep pace. The script, by “Deadpool” writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, makes a few valiant stabs at depth — David’s memories of Syria and a tasteful invocation of Challenger explosion come to mind among them — but it’s also mired by dopier bits. Setting aside plausibility issues (including the ability of one scientist to activate a sleeping Martian cell within 48 hours of discovering it), “Life” suffers from a pileup of unimaginative babbling once the action scenes take off, including two different characters yelling “Fuck this!” at different moments in the same scene.
Every other bit of audio is a feast for the ears. In one mesmerizing sequence, fragments of the ship crumble into a tornado of glass and metal as seemingly ever crushed fiber makes an audible crunch. Composer Jon Ekstrand’s score is appropriately manic for a movie that develops its claustrophobia as it moves along. During the chaotic finale, the music shifts into an ironic waltz — a welcome nod to “2001: A Space Odyssey” — that plays against the destruction with wonderfully cinematic results. It’s one of several moments that indicate the intentions of a filmmaker desperate to push the material beyond the limitations of a traditional horror movie in space. But no matter how much trickery Espinosa throws into the frame, “Life” remains tethered to familiar terra firma.
“Life” premiered as the closing night selection of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. It opens theatrically March 24.
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