Film review: Life

by James Robins / 21 April, 2017
Life: Ryan Reynolds heads a stellar cast.

A well-crafted space horror borrows shamelessly from past missions.

Despite its stellar cast and setting, Life is a B-movie. It’s a horror flick pruned at the edges and reduced to a basic, elemental premise: in the near future, a research crew aboard the International Space Station retrieve some Martian soil and reanimate a single-celled bacterium within, which is nicknamed “Calvin”. But Calvin quickly starts expanding into an extra-terrestrial monstrosity who doesn’t come in peace and doesn’t even bother to sample the rehydrated macaroni.

As with most B-movies, the pirating is shameless. Espinosa barely bothers to hide Life’s influences, a roster of intergalactic classics, including a redux of the keening, eerie choral chords of Lux Aeterna from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the carbon-dioxide shivers of Apollo 13, the contemporary dazzle of Gravity, and, of course, Alien. In space, everyone can see you pilfer.

We ought to forgive Life its lack of originality because, for the most part, the picture is fantastically well crafted. It begins with a gorgeous shot of a luminous Sun cresting the Earth’s curvature and silhouetting the black and ominous space station, before venturing inside for a seven-minute single-take look around, chasing the crew as they float swiftly, like hung ballerinas, through tubes of blinking warning lights. It’s entrancing, and an efficient introduction for the characters, played by, among others, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Unlike Alien, however, the movie doesn’t derive its peril from sustained silences, but from frenetic chaos, accompanied by foghorn blares and scratched strings. After a chastening 90 minutes, the ISS is a can of crushed limbs, misplaced internal organs and blood.

Pure terror in tight places is common in horror movies, but it’s rare to see the essence of claustrophobia captured so viscerally. At the very least, Life finds new and elaborate ways of doing death. ••½


This article was first published in the April 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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