By Jack Dignan
The discovery of life beyond Earth is a concept previously toyed with in a countless number of films and entertainment. It’s a topic with great diversity and room for potential, its limitations restricted to that which the author can come up with. Anything is possible. Life, like so many films before it, attempts to answer the question of ‘what would happen if we were to discover an alien life form?’ Would they be hostile? Friendly? Humanoid? It’s unclear. However, as is the case for Life, a new sci-fi horror film in similar vein to Ridley Scott’s chilling classic Alien, finding life in space may just lead to the downfall of human existence.
Aboard the International Space Station, floating in circles around the Earth, a small team of scientists led by David Jordon (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovers a single cell organism on the surface of mars. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is placed in charge of studying the organism, analysing and interacting with it as it begins to evolve and slowly adapt to its newfound surroundings. But the organism proves to be far more intelligent than any of them had anticipated, growing exponentially and consequently escaping from captivity. It’s a game of survival as the creature continues to grow, getting stronger and increasingly violent. The crew, consisting of Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya), must bond together in a fight for survival against the malevolent alien.
We open in space, a breathtaking one shot navigating throughout the entire ship serving as an impressive opening. The film instantaneously becomes a technical achievement. Reminiscent of the cinematography from 2013’s Gravity, the camera work is long and smooth, floating effortlessly throughout the confined, twisted spaceship. The gorgeous camera work adds to the claustrophobia and the tension, swooping through the dark and lavish set pieces to wonderfully uncomfortable results. Life is a spectacle for the eye, not only camera-wise, but also in its visuals. Despite very little of the movie taking place outside of the spaceship (still, the zero-g effect is a hard one to master), the effects remain visually astounding.
Building tension can be difficult. It’s easy to confine a horror movie to a single location, much like this one, but without the much-needed stakes and character investment, all hard work is put to waste. Life, thankfully, works. You care about the characters, hoping for their survival yet unsure if any of them are going to pull through. The story is fast in pace, getting right into the scientific investigation while also unraveling who exactly these characters are. Their backstories and character details are thorough, delivered in a way that doesn’t scream with obvious characterization. It’s subtle, the performances effectively nuanced. Everyone nails their role, but it’s Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson who steal the show. “I miss my fucking dog,” Ryan Reynolds yells after an early encounter with the alien. That one line alone delivers information to the audience in a way that’s natural, and it’s far from the only example.
Previous alien films, more often than not, usually take the approach of discovering a fully fleshed out alien race living it out on a faraway planet. There’s no problem with this at all. If it works for the plot, a great film can come of it. What’s interesting about Life is that it changes things up. We, as audience members, are present during the alien’s upbringings. We witness it as a single-cell organism, growing and growing into the eventual creature it becomes. In a strange way, I found myself almost attached to it, much like with head scientist Hugh Derry. When it does escape its captivity, however, and the stakes are raised, that’s when this film is able to tip us on our heads. It goes from a generic sci-fi to an unpredictable thriller. You think you have an idea of where this film is going, but the film completely turns everything around in the best way possible.
The film becomes darker, scarier and more unpredictable than you can possibly imagine. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the creative geniuses behind Deadpool and Zombieland, rely on formulaic horror movie expectations in order to twist them and turn them into a horrific, gore-filled nail bitter that’ll dig its way under your skin. Creativity is hard to come by in the genre of horror, but Life is full of it. These are smart characters making logical and well thought out decisions. Despite all efforts, nowhere feels safe. Danger lurks everywhere. While the alien itself looks somewhat generic, its relentless and violent nature aids in the overall creepiness, leading to a finale that’s goddamn terrifying. The final moments are somewhat predictable, but only by about thirty or so seconds, and this mild predictability doesn’t take away from the shock value of the film’s final punch.
Life may draw similarities from other films, but when culminated together it delivers a high impact, unpredictable and gory sci-fi horror that works. The film constantly lingers you in one direction, only to push all expectations out of the way and hit you hard in the gut. At this point in his career, if an upcoming film features Jake Gyllenhaal in the starring role, it’s probably best you make sure not to miss it. You certainly shouldn’t when it comes to Life.
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