Alien meets Gravity: Life is a formulaic yet entertaining sci fi

Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson in Life
Damon Smith

IF CINEMA'S most exquisite killing machine – the acid-blooded alien from Ridley Scott's seminal 1979 sci-fi horror – had been unleashed on stricken Sandra Bullock in her disintegrating Gravity space station, the resulting carnage would bear more than a passing resemblance to Life.

Daniel Espinosa's otherworldly thriller unfolds almost entirely just above Earth's orbit, where six plucky scientists encounter a terrifying extra-terrestrial threat in claustrophobic confines.

For a film which shamelessly references genre classics, Life wants to be both pithily knowing and woefully naive. Thus one of the ill-fated crew stares out at an approaching probe from Mars, carrying soil samples from the red planet, and beams without irony, "I have a good feeling about this."

Moments later, his wise-cracking colleague compares their nurturing of a multi-tentacle beastie to Stuart Gordon's cult 1985 horror fantasy Re-Animator.

"That's an obscure reference," scolds a female colleague, speaking for the majority of the audience.

"Not if you're a nerd," chime the men in unison.

Director Espinosa opens with an eye-catching unbroken single take which floats along various arms of the International Space Station (ISS), meeting nervy protagonists in cramped conditions. It's a beautifully choreographed sequence, almost balletic in execution.

Russian commander Katerina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya) leads this six-strong international team of the Mars Pilgrim 7 Mission. Her colleagues include chief medical officer Dr David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), exobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), mission specialist Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), systems engineer Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada) and quarantine expert Dr Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One soil sample from Mars contains a single-celled lifeform – affectionately christened Calvin – which responds to stimulation by glucose.

"We're looking at the first incontrovertible proof of life beyond Earth!" whoops Hugh.

He devotes every waking minute to raising Calvin and other crew become unsettled by Hugh's fixation.

Alas, Calvin grows in size at a ferocious rate and eventually attacks one astronaut. Alarm bells sound and remaining crew pool resources to exterminate Calvin before the fully grown creature can escape the space station and descend on the all-you-can-eat buffet of planet Earth.

Life is a formulaic, yet entertaining, battle for survival that slaughters cast members one by one as Calvin demonstrates he is smarter than the average xenomorph.

Gyllenhaal, Reynolds et all look by turns sweat-drenched and defiant in their space suits as they search for ingenious methods to flush out a merciless predator.

One narrative twist is a bit of a cheat and ends up being clearly signposted by virtue of the deception. The crew might not see what is hurtling towards them, but we certainly can.

LIFE (15, 104 mins) Sci-Fi/Horror/Thriller. Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Ariyon Bakare, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya. Director: Daniel Espinosa

RATING: 6/10


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