Life

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Say what you will about Life—that’s it’s a knock-off, a B-movie, whatever—but you might also say that it’s tautly directed, well-acted and most importantly, has a creature that is truly scary. That’s not an easy thing to do in today’s CGI-infested landscape, but it works here, and it’s about all that is required.

The story won’t be new to anyone that’s ever been to a drive-in movie, but an alien life force decides to play havoc with the crew of a space station (what else?), and one could easily make allusions to everything from, obviously, Ridley Scott’s Alien to Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, if you wanted to be high-falutin’.

But Life, exceedingly well acted by its three stars, is a fun trip dip in the genre pool as directed by Daniel Espinoza, mounted with the slick and expensive veneer of Gravity, for which Alfonso Cuaron won a much-deserved Oscar.

Life won’t win any, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t open with a doozy of a sequence with Ryan Reynolds in a stock scene of an astronaut taking a big risk while floating outside the space station, trying to stop a disabled satellite.

The crew, which includes medic Jake Gyllenhaal and safety officer Rebecca Ferguson, as well as researcher Ariyon Bakare, take aboard some topsoil from Mars which contains a single-celled organism and incontrovertible proof of red planet existence. Right away we know more than they do, which is that you 1) never answer a distress signal, 2) never take anything aboard, 3) look but don’t touch.  Two out of three ain’t bad.

The very tiny and seemingly benevolent material is, as these things tend to be, initially harmless. But when Bakara decides to poke and prod the organism to drive it from its sleep-like stillness (i.e., to life), well you can probably guess what’s coming.

The actors are uniformly fine (and maybe better). Reynolds has an excruciating scene early in the film that felt, to me a bit of a surprise. Gyllenhaal, going inward and emotionally lost out in deep space, and a whip smart Ferguson have believable spark between them, both philosophical and melancholic, and in the second half manage to layer the horror with nuance.

And then there’s the creature, which is the real star of this show and—as they always do—grows into a slimy, gooey mess with a few tricks up its sleeve, including a very scary scene involving the glass cover of a sleeping pod. You can gauge the success of a picture like this on whether your physicality changes during its horror sequences, and I could feel the goosebumps.

The star of the show is really DP Seamus McGarvey, whose space-scapes and claustrophobic ship interiors give this movie a recognizable genre aesthetic as well as a sense of classiness, suggesting that glossiness of a bigger budget film.

The ending is a real gut punch, diffused only by the use of an inappropriate and tension-reducing song that blasts immediately upon the closing credits.

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