LIFE. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. 104 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong science fiction themes and violence).

Although it evidently owes a great deal to superior films that have gone before it (looking at you, ‘Alien’ and ‘Gravity’, and even you, 1968’s ‘Planet of the Apes’), ‘Life’ still manages to deliver intelligent genre thrills and a handful of performances that easily clear the (admittedly low) bar I’ve mentally set for modern, space-centric horror movies (now looking at you ‘Apollo 18’ and ‘Prometheus’).

There are six astronauts aboard the International Space Station when it takes delivery of a damaged probe carrying soil samples from Mars: Russian mission commander Katerina (Olga Dihovichnaya), British biologist and paraplegic Hugh (Ariyon Bakare, channelling Victor Frankenstein), American engineer and spacewalk specialist Rory (Ryan Reynolds), British scientist from the Center for Disease Control Rebecca (Rebecca Ferguson), veteran Japanese astronaut Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada, flush with warmth), and American station doctor David (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has recently attained the mind-boggling record for most consecutive days in space. It is soon ascertained that there is a seventh member of their party; a single-celled organism found amongst Mars’ orange sands, the first proof of extra-terrestrial life.

The opening scene, in which Rory mans a large robotic arm mounted on the ISS to catch the out of control satellite, is a nerve-shredding exercise in suspense, despite the audience knowing that the payload must be secured to jump start the plot. Like the stunning opening scene of ‘Gravity’, DP Seamus McGarvey shoots the sequence in a single take, chasing floating astronauts through the claustrophobic shafts that make up the station. The camera moves so smoothly through such cramped spaces that I simply don’t know how it was done – my only recourse is to insist that the interior was created digitally, but it’s done extremely well if that is the case. I didn’t much like the last film I saw by director Daniel Espinosa, 2012’s ‘Safe House’, which boasted action so aggressively edited that it bordered on meaningless. It is safe to say his approach has matured, as this elegant opening establishes the visual signature of the film.

While Rebecca is tasked with keeping their microscopic guest contained behind a series of Russian Doll ‘firewalls’ (that is to say, an airtight plexiglass box inside the airtight on-board laboratory, and so on), Hugh begins experiments to analyse the makeup of the alien, now named Calvin after a NASA-run primary school competition back on Earth. As it begins to grow rapidly, Hugh notes that each individual cell is simultaneously nerve and muscle, making Calvin ‘all muscle, all brain’. After several weeks, Calvin resembles a flaccid, semi-transparent jelly about the size and shape of an average starfish. During routine testing, Calvin takes umbrage to Hugh’s miniature cattle prod, and clamps vicelike onto his arm. In the ensuing panic, Calvin makes its frightening capacity for gruesome violence known to the crew, turning on the other resident of the laboratory, an unsuspecting albino lab rat.

With Calvin now loose in the station, transforming and growing, and clearly a threat to life on Earth, the crew goes into overdrive trying to hunt down the creature, the plot borrowing liberally from the first ‘Alien’ movie as it goes (indeed, some beats of ‘Life’ were extremely unexpected until I joined the dots between these films – I imagine you’ll understand what I am alluding to if you see the film). What impresses most is the evident intelligence of the characters throughout the screenplay. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (of ‘Deadpool’ fame) ensure that their decisions reflect an acumen appropriate for their selection into the space program – threats are responded to logically, even when a fellow crew member is in jeopardy. Airlocks are kept sealed, lives are laid down. Some are a little more emotional than others, but this natural deviation adds some necessary gravity to some of their decisions and sacrifices.

The international cast is more than up to their roles, in particular Gyllenhaal (by now a dab hand at playing slightly sensitive, slightly heroic) and Ferguson (back to her ‘Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’ form in another strong female role after the misstep of ‘The Girl on the Train’). Reynolds is given most of the comic relief (perhaps a result of his work as the titular Deadpool for Reese and Wernick), and he raises a few smiles in the opening act (harder to do than you might think in an audience who are just waiting for things to take a turn for the worst). Most importantly, each is ultimately likable. I wanted each of them to make it to the end and not all of them do. Who said life was easy?

The film’s inability to truly disrupt the space horror-thriller might rankle some viewers, but when nothing this good has entered the fray since ‘Gravity’ in 2012 (longer still if you consider only those co-starring aliens), who would I be to dismiss it for this offence? I had a ripping time watching it, and the final frames are still playing in my head one day later. I guess you could say that ‘Life’ will find a way…

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out March 23.

Sony Pictures.

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