One thing that makes a sci-fi film great is the realism it can provide. If the future is not so dystopian, or if the technology is not so far off. “Life” captures that framework nicely, establishing a setting that we could imagine possible.
Six astronauts aboard the International Space Station prepare to receive a soil sample from Mars, hopeful that what they find can provide insight into the mysteries of the universe. Highlighting the crew are flight engineer Adams (Ryan Reynolds) and Dr. Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose personalities couldn’t be more different. Dr. Derry (Ariyon Bakare) gives us a quick science refresher when a sample is animated, in a wonderful sequence of high school biology lab work. Then things go awry. The crew scrambles to both understand this alien organism as well as survive its unexpected havoc, all while living in a claustrophobic, hazardous environment where anything can go wrong at any time.
Right from the start, I was captivated by the fantastically creative camerawork, blended seamlessly with the top-notch visual effects. There is something about zero gravity that is fascinating, and director Daniel Espinoza (2012’s “Safe House”) handles it with aplomb. It’s the effects that bring this film (and the organism) to life. Dazzling and gruesome at times, “Life” is unmistakably a thriller, but it’s also quite beautiful.
Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Deadpool,” “Zombieland”) give us familiar archetypes on board the ISS; reluctant hero, comic relief, father figure, brave leader. Nothing is new, and yet, I was disappointed that Gyllenhaal’s character wasn’t developed just a bit more. There were hints to a past story that was never really unpacked, and it would have added more depth and increased tension if even five or 10 minutes were devoted to him earlier. His acting is terrific as usual, and this isn’t the type of film he usually attaches himself to, but I was impressed.
The score. The score was phenomenal. I can’t recall a thriller in recent memory that had sound that equally matched the visual mood being created by the director and actors. As the film began to crescendo to its foreseeable but utterly heart-pounding ending, it was reminiscent of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (see it if you haven’t). The pulsing bass intensifies to what is a really satisfying and chilling conclusion.
Clearly there is an attempt to attract a female following with the mildly photogenic Reynolds and Gyllenhaal attached, but be warned, there is no eye candy. This is more like seeing “Saving Private Ryan” to see the dreamy Matt Damon. The men are sweaty, grimy and fully clothed, and anyway the real star is the creature.
Masterfully crafted to be both docile and ruthlessly primal, it is something we’ve never seen before — less menacing and more mesmerizing.
What separates “Life” from so many others in the genre is the completeness of execution. The story is the weak link, but everything else rises to compensate. Effects and music highlight what could have very easily been typical in every sense of the sci-fi genre, but instead it’s a remarkable film that will kick off a great year in science fiction.
The tagline is “We were better off alone.” You will be better off watching this film, enjoying the ride, and savoring the final few minutes. Let the chills sink in, and enjoy the fear.