Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa, is the latest Alien-inspired survival horror film set in space. However, despite some graphic body-horror scares, Life’s antagonist, the incongruously named “Calvin,” lacks plausibility. Don’t get me wrong, there’s not much “science” behind Ridley Scott’s xenomorph alien either, but its rapid evolution is at least given some explanation. The species has a life-cycle similar to that of an insect. As such, viewers can anticipate the creature’s development. This is not the case with Calvin. While Life is chalk-full of effective, visually impressive scares, it’s structure is all too reminiscent of Alien.
Headlined by Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rebecca Ferguson, Life aims to terrify. The crew of six is led by Russian mission commander Ekaterina (Olga Dihovichnaya) aboard the International Space Station as it retrieves a lunar lander with soil samples from the Mars. Upon analysis of this sample, xenobiologist, Hugh Derry, played by Ariyon Bakare, is ecstatic to discover a perfectly preserved single-cell organism. Wasting no time, Hugh proceeds to reanimate this cell by manipulating the test chamber’s “atmosphere.” This is the cliche short-sided scientist whose efforts to play God result in the vicious punishment of the crew.
Exasperating matters further, multiple team members bypass sensible protocol, thereby moving the plot along, but dishelveling the film in the realm of realism. Before long, Calvin escapes containment, having maimed one team member and killed another in gruesome fashion. Oh, and a lab rat in equally gruesome fashion. Fully at odds with the martian creature, the crew fights to restore containment and terminate the threat, only to be picked off one by one.
One of Life’s strongest elements is its filming of zero-gravity. Director Espinosa brilliantly executes numerous scenes in which the cast is zipping around through corridors using hand and footholds like bees in a hive, as well moments where the crew is upside down relative to the audience. This disorientation competently sells the whole “no upside down in space” thing, and raises the terror who all new levels when Calvin begins his rampage. Whether Calvin himself is by nature designed for this environment or has simply evolved to master conditions his human can only meander is unclear. Either way, it makes for thrilling terror.
As for Calvin’s design, the filmmakers drew significant inspiration from terrestrial octopuses, which is also seen by its problem-solving skills and ever impressive boneless escapes. At the same time, whenever Calvin sees his target, it bolts like a cheetah mowing down a baby gazelle.
Unfortunately, Life feels beat for beat too similar to Alien most of the time. Beyond even the progression of plot points, entire scenes feel strung together based on its predecessor’s template. But while it’s impossible for Life to be the better for these comparisons, it does manage to find some unique and horrifying ways to die in space. And its decidedly dark twist in the closing moments does plenty to elevate it.
Overall Life is a solid survival horror film set in space, but when it comes right down to it, it has too many similarities to Ridley Scott’s Alien to really stand on its own. It does what it can to flesh itself out in new, unique ways, but at the end of the day, its bones unmistakeably belong to Scott’s masterpiece.
I give Life a B-