‘Life’ finds a way to feel new despite its old premise

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Life
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Life is the kind of film that most folks are likely to dismiss out of hand, even though it’s actually a decent, effective little film. The trailers made the film look like a four-decades-late clone of Alien, and yeah, that is basically what you’re getting. A group of scientists in the near future on the International Space Station retrieve a returning Martian rover that is carrying microscopic life, they awaken that organism, and it starts to grow, revealing hostile intent and eventually picking off the scientists one by one. In other words, yes, it’s the same “trapped with a monster in space” formula. It’s by no means a reinvention of the wheel, but while it isn’t as perfectly round a wheel as Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, it’s still a perfectly effective vehicle to give you more of that type of story without feeling dated or unimaginative.

Though the film does play coy with its horror premise through swelling optimistic orchestration for longer than I would prefer, when the film does get into full-on monster mode, it’s a great bit of tension. Slowly discovering just how smart and just how deadly the creature—which the crew had dubbed Calvin—can be is a constant nail-biting affair, first as the crew attempts to rescue a colleague from the tiny murderous thing, then as they try to kill it, and finally as they simply try to contain it or expel it from the ship. The effect becomes somewhat diminished when Calvin takes on more tangible form and stops hiding within the bowels of the station as much, but overall Life is as good of a monster movie as we can usually expect from modern cinema.

What really sells the film, though, is the solid character work on display from a consistently great cast. Ryan Reynolds is an engineer convinced of his own expendability; Ariyon Bakare is a biologist who becomes addictively fascinated with Calvin’s growth and abilities at the expense of his own safety. Olga Dihovichnaya is a commanding officer determined to protect her crew; Rebecca Ferguson is a security expert whose contingencies must take into account more than just the crew’s lives. Jake Gyllenhaal is a long-time resident of the station with an extreme aversion to returning to earth; Hiroyuki Sanada has a new child he cannot wait to get home to. All of these are archetypal roles in the extreme, but the talented performances convey fear, determination, and camaraderie in appropriate measure and make you care enough about the characters that it’s a legitimate shame to see one of them die.

The whole enterprise results in one hell of an ending that it would be a sin to spoil, but overall Life is worthy of a solid recommendation. There are a lot of better films in theaters right now, so this isn’t so great a film that I would say it requires an immediate ticket purchase. However, when you see this pop up on Netflix in a few months, there are many worse ways to kill an evening.