Movie Review: ‘LIFE’ does genre right, crafting great character and unrelenting terror


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Rated R, 103 minutes.
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Jake GyllenhaalRebecca FergusonRyan Reynolds, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare and Hiroyuki Sanada

There’ve been so many sci-fi horror films set in space over the years that it’s hard to do anything new with the genre. Luckily, the innovative minds behind DEADPOOL and ZOMBIELAND have gifted us with something on par with the best in the genre, rather than adding to the dregs.

Director Daniel Espinosa’s LIFE doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel; however, the narrative is infused with enough clever, smart and absolutely terrifying turns to keep it in orbit. You may wanna have a barf bag nearby because it’s an edge-of-your-seat, unrelenting, chilling and intense adventure – and quite possibly the best alien movie of the year.

After Jon Ekstrand’s lush, at times too overbearing score sets the atmospheric tone, welcoming us to the vastness of space, we greet the astronauts on the Pilgrim mission aboard the International Space Station. The crew includes exobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), commander Kat Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), flight engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), CDC officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), crew medical officer Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and systems engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada). They are awaiting the arrival of precious cargo of Martian soil samples. And guess what? They discover a large single cell in the soil – life. But it doesn’t take long before their heavenly discovery turns into a hellish nightmare when the sentient organism evolves at an exponential rate, morphing into a squid-like, muscular, intelligent alien creature which threatens to outsmart our heroes at every turn.

Jake Gyllenhaal in LIFE. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

LIFE is highly evocative of the epic, psychological space-set that came before it (most notably films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and ALIEN), sharing similar tonal qualities, but not overdosing on homage. Character interplay also feels a tad reminiscent of John Carpenter’s THE THING. In terms of their development, writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese wisely never go overboard, keeping the story and dialogue pretty tight. We learn about their backstories (David likes space’s solitude! Sho has a new baby! Kat loved Goodnight Moon! Hugh is wheelchair-bound on Earth!), but there’s not a lot of exposition, nor is there much in the way of extraneous dialogue. We get to know the crew enough that when the hentai-inspired creature starts picking them off, we really feel their deaths – that palpable sense of loss. Plus, there’s a little time between the losses, where the characters express their humanity, to decompress from the horrors.

Perhaps the best thing about this is that there are no conveniences or contrivances to keep situations moving along a set trajectory. Set-ups are there, but they don’t drop like leaden anvils. They are smoothly integrated. It never collapses into eye- roll-inducing horror movie tropes, or abject stupidity seeing allegedly intelligent people doing dumb things (I’m looking at you, PROMETHEUS). These are capable people who can – and do – problem-solve at their required skill level. It blessedly also sticks to the rules of their skillsets so audience skepticism remains at bay.

Seamus McGarvey’s sparkling cinematography adds a beautiful visual juxtaposition as even bloody deaths look gorgeous. Nigel Phelps’ production design and Steven Lawrence’s art direction also earn top marks. You get a real sense of the station’s scope and scale as the camera glides with gazelle-like grace from corridor through corridor. And Mary Jo Markey and Frances Parker’s cuts linger in the right places and augment tension in others. Their work on that final sequence is tremendous.

On the whole, while Espinosa’s film may not breathe new life into the genre, it gets the job done in an efficient, effective manner.

Grade: B

LIFE opens on March 24.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.