Life doesn't exactly re-invent the wheel; it hits familiar notes that genre fans are well acquainted with, but when it hits them, it hits them hard, with ambience, tension and a palpable sense of fear in the face of something alien.
Aboard the International Space Station, a crew of six is tasked with scouring Mars probes for possible life-forms: Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Katerina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya), Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) and Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada). When a sample comes back positive, the crew — and the rest of planet Earth — are thrilled at the first concrete evidence of life on Mars.
Life initially treats this discovery as a triumph of science, full of wonder and possibility. The astronauts are hailed as heroes, and chat via Skype to cute kids on TV about how they go to the bathroom in space. The alien, a tiny, flower-like creature, is christened "Calvin" by a doe-eyed elementary school student in a massive Times Square celebration. Shortly afterwards, Sho's wife gives birth to a baby while he coaches via tablet. Isn't the miracle of life great?
Things start to go awry when one of the lab's safety firewalls malfunctions, and no one is quite sure how. Because everyone on board this ship is such a professional — even foul-mouthed Rory — they tackle every problem with logic and facts. The problem is, while it may be an "intelligent" life form, the alien doesn't deal in logic and facts. It's motivated by pure survival, and if that includes hunting down everyone on board the ISS, then so be it.
From there, it's easy to see where the rest of the film is going to go (except for a shockingly satisfying final act), but it's how it gets there that's the real draw. The film is efficient in its pacing, allowing the audience just enough time to bask in the strange beauty of the miniature "Calvin" before it transforms into full-on "Reanimator shit," as Rory delicately puts it. When it does, it ramps up quickly.
Deploying the same acrobatic, over-the-shoulder shots as other "floating through space" films like Gravity, the cinematography of Life gives each scene a sense of unreality as well as claustrophobia. Because we are keenly aware of the limitations of space on board the ship, it's all the more nail-biting when we don't know where "Calvin" is. Effective use of shadows and harsh lighting enhances this tension, as does the way each gush of blood is depicted with grotesque beauty.
Even though the film features A-lister heavyweights like Gyllenhaal and Reynolds, Life's six protagonists are each given enough characterization that no one death feels like slasher movie fodder. The script, co-written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who also wrote Zombieland and Deadpool), is clever, with flashes of very dark comedy. Despite treading familiar territory, Life is an impressively executed, engaging and thrilling sci-fi horror. (Sony)