The main premise behind Life is not a new one within the sci-fi horror genre. A small, tight knit crew aboard a claustrophobic, sterile looking craft being terrorised by an otherworldly entity. It’s been done before that’s for sure. Said crew also follow typical genre character traits. There’s the stoic, unflappable leader. The cocky one who likes a joke. The scientist who loses focus. The slightly distant, by the book one. You’ll feel like you’ve seen an iteration of these characters before within a similar setting. But, much like your favourite meal or that old comfy t-shirt you like to lounge about in, familiarity can be a comforting place.
Life proudly wears it’s influences on its sleeve. There can be comparisons made to the likes of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine for example. But the most obvious influence would be the one that started the whole sub-genre of sci-fi horror, Ridley Scotts 1979 classic, Alien. Only here, the International Space Station takes the place of the good ship Nostromo. A translucent, highly adaptable space squid replaces the iconic Xenomorph creature. Ellen Ripley and co were responding to a distress call, while this crews mission is to retrieve a soil sample from one of the probes sent to Mars. Aside from that, the similarities between the two are easy to spot. With a few scenes in Life being not so subtle nods to its illustrious forebear. Fortunately, however, the action and set pieces are carried off with enough flair and skill that any lingering feelings of familiarity can be forgiven.
The cast is solid and do what they can within a somewhat limited timeframe. The film moves along at a quick pace, so there’s not too much in the way of substantial character development. Although it clocks in at over 100 mins, it feels a lot shorter. Thus, some cast members revert to type. Ryan Reynolds is still eminently likeable, as he channels a PG Deadpool. Jake Gyllenhaal does his slightly creepy, weird guy shtick as his character, Dr David Jordan, has been in the vastness of space for a bit too long. While Rebecca Ferguson’s Dr North has the potential makings of an Ellen Ripley-like heroine, and Ariyon Bakare’s Dr Derry hints at an interesting back story, there just isn’t enough time for the characters to grow into anything more than standard two-dimensional monster bait. Olga Dihovichnaya as Commander Golovkins and Hiroyuki Sanada as Engineer Sho Murukami, suffer the most in terms of being undercooked, character wise. In fact, the crews 7th member, an albino rat called Pluto, ends up leaving more of an impression.
However, it’s the space squid, affectionately dubbed Calvin, that is the clear star of the show. Calvin starts off as a small single-celled organism, but soon begins growing and learning at a lightning quick rate, before predictably becoming hostile to the crew. And it’s a threat on many different levels. One stand out set piece lets the viewer clearly see its ferocious eating habits. Add to this the ability to survive in almost any environment and its unnerving, spider-like movements as it moves around the ship, result in Calvin being one of the more memorable CGI creatures that have joined the ranks of the movie monster files in recent times.
There’s also a sting in the tail ending that most audience members will see coming fairly easily, but it still has an effective impact nonetheless. In all, there won’t be much that will surprise you or feel especially fresh when watching this film, but that’s no bad thing in and of itself. An old idea can still reap enjoyable rewards if handled with care and passion, and director Daniel Espinosa has achieved that. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of those that came before it, some memorable set pieces and a well-designed new monster make Life an accomplished and fun addition to the genre.