"Life" is destined to be eternally compared to Ridley Scott's 1979 space-set, face-hugging horror classic "Alien," and the parallels between them are decidedly apt. While this fond successor lacks narrative innovation, one hardly notices as momentum barrels ever forward, helmer Daniel Espinosa (2012's "Safe House
") and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (2009's "Zombieland
") upping the ante with craftily escalating complications and old-fashioned terror. The actors are better than this particular scriptit is the kind of no-frills suspenser that gives its characters no more than one or two defining traitsbut a movie like "Life" lives or dies first and foremost by way of its technical and directorial prowess. On those terms, it works like gangbusters.
A manned mission to Mars has proven a success for the crew of the International Space Station, who have brought onboard a sample from the Red Planet providing the first incontrovertible proof of life beyond Earth. During their return journey home, this initially single-cell organism begins to grow and get stronger. Medical officer Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), mission specialist Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Center for Disease Control rep Miranda Bragg (Rebecca Ferguson), system engineer Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), captain Ekaterina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya), and exobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) have no idea what this alien being is or what it's capable of, but soon they will be fighting for their lives against a deadly force that could prove cataclysmic to all of humanity.
"Life" naturally doesn't try to repeat the infamous chest-bursting scene from "Alien," but it devises a couple of worthy, squirm-inducing equivalents. This is a skillfully devised thriller all around, and it couldn't have been easy to make, opening with an impressive extended introductory shot as the camera floats through the vessel and maintaining its zero-gravity illusion thereafter. The villain of the piecea spiteful bugger they name Calvin, reminiscent of a vicious translucent squidis legitimately intimidating and not quite like any other extraterrestrial seen on film before. The monstrosity, brought to icky life via meticulous computer effects, is one the viewer simultaneously grows to hate and love to hate. Of course it didn't ask to be taken from its homeland, but once it sets out to kill everyone in sight the picture rarely, if ever, slows down for a breather.
"Life" is a questionable title that doesn't chill one to the bone so much as remind of the mediocre 1999 prison dramedy
starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. A more fitting moniker could have easily been decided upon, but no matter; weak name or not, this is one of the better creature features in some time, sustaining a taut, vicious grasp all the way to the end credits. The cast is dutiful in their slim roles, with Jake Gyllenhaal (2016's "Nocturnal Animals
") delivering affecting monologues involving the 1986 Challenger
disaster and Margaret Wise Brown's children's picture book "Goodnight Moon," Rebecca Ferguson (2016's "The Girl on the Train
") holding her own if not quite reaching Sigourney-Weaver-as-Ripley levels of badassery, and Ryan Reynolds (2015's "The Voices
") making a lingering impression with the picture's scariest sequence. The star of the show, though, is its wicked intensity. Even if there's not much to think about beneath the surface, there is tons about which to marvel. First-rate horror films provide a special brand of catharsis no other genre can achieve, and "Life" delivers big time on this count.