In the hopes that Life might tide over people impatiently waiting for Alien: Covenant, I was genuinely surprised to discover what kind of film awaited me. The concept of horror set in the isolation of space might have its roots in Ridley Scott’s signature masterpiece, but Life, ironically, breathes some new life into the sub-genre while cleverly honoring its influential cinematic grandfathers, though sometimes it seems like it never quite aspires to be as bold or inventive as them either.
Life follows a team of astronauts and scientists aboard the International Space Station. After a successful expedition to harvest soil samples from Mars, the crew of the station discover that the soil may be hosting the first micro-organisms of alien life. Needless to say, horrifying events begin to unfold when the organism rapidly evolves and starts to pick off the crew one by one. In typically old-fashioned space horror, Life fully embraces its identity and proves to be one of the better entries in the sub-genre, perhaps since Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.
Life boasts a great cast of actors, particularly Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds who bring a certain charm and charisma to the silent, empty void of space, and naturally fit their roles well, playing to their stronger characteristics as actors. Reynolds definitely brings his comedic, wise-cracking personality to the table and provides some good light-hearted moments earlier on in the film before it spirals into insanity. Gyllenhaal proves to be one of Hollywood’s ideal leading stars, having great chemistry with the crew and fitting his role well for the protagonist. Every one feels like they have great synergy here, especially Ariyon Bakare who delivers a surprisingly solid performance. The characters feel grounded and well-developed despite the short spaces some of them are given to work with, making the emotional investment in their plights against the horror all the more intense.
In paying homage to classic space horror like Alien and to an extent, Event Horizon, Life wisely chooses to remain conventionally simple and intimate, and this actually works as its greatest strength. With only six characters constantly being the focus of the film, there isn’t any attempt (or lack thereof) to under-develop them as expendables to predictably be killed off, and thus it keeps the horror contained, personal and relentless, often to very frightening degrees thanks to some spectacular directing on Daniel Espinosa’s part. The film ultimately feels like two halves of a whole; the first half is a divisively slow-burner that eases us into the experience and winds up the suspense, while the second half is more action-heavy and untamed in its horror.
Unfortunately, the first and second half of the film feel like conflicting tones. Where Ridley Scott’s Alien maintained an incredibly suspenseful tone throughout the entire film, even with the xenomorph on the loose, Life suffers some pacing issues that divides the film into one-half taut sci-fi thriller, and one half action-horror. While neither are particularly bad, and Espinosa has a fairly good grasp on both styles, they can be off-putting for what viewers might expect seeing how the film begins in a particular tone and never really follows through with it. To its credit, the shift in tone isn’t nearly as jarring or outlandish as the third act of Sunshine.
Verdict: Life is an excellently crafted horror and love letter to Alien and classic space horrors, perhaps even to a fault. The actors do a good job for what they’re given and ground the film thanks to their great chemistry, especially in Gyllenhaal and Reynolds. While the tonal shift in the second half of the film may seem excessive, director Daniel Espinosa confidently molds the film into his own and delivers a surprisingly effective, claustrophobic trip. It’s a brilliantly entertaining ride while it lasts with a great payoff that should leave the thirst for Alien: Covenant adequately quenched for now.
*side note: Just to clarify the rumors – sorry folks, this isn’t a prequel to Venom.