Let’s be clear about this from the beginning: Alien is the measuring stick against which other outer space horror flicks are measured. Indeed, while viewing Daniel Espinosa’s tension-filled Life, I realized that it’s nearly impossible not to recall Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi classic while watching a film about a crew of astronauts trapped in a vessel with a murderous creature. But while Espinosa’s film may wear its influences on its sleeve, that doesn’t rob it of its entertaining qualities.
Set aboard the international space station an unspecified number of years in the future, Life opens with the crew retrieving a damaged rover containing a collection of samples from Mars. Among the specimens is the first proof of biological existence on the red planet, and resident scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) manages to nurse the creature back to health. Dubbed “Calvin,” the being evolves rapidly, displaying a surprising amount of intelligence and curiosity.
Things take a turn for the worse when Calvin, sensing danger at the hands of its caretakers, responds to the perceived threat with a horrifying act of violence and escapes into the bowels of the ISS. It’s here where the Alien similarities are most prevalent, as the crew is stalked relentlessly from one part of the station to another by a seemingly unstoppable foe. But unique to this film is the fact that everything takes place in zero gravity, which allows Espinosa to craft some complex and fascinating action setpieces that help elevate Life beyond its formulaic storytelling.
Also raising the bar is the cast, including Ryan Reynolds as a smartass engineer, Rebecca Ferguson as the mission’s quarantine specialist, and Jake Gyllenhaal as a chief medical officer with no desire to return to Earth. “I hate what we do to each other down there,” he tells a fellow crew member, and we see where he’s coming from: it’s hard to argue with the tranquility of space when compared to the chaos of humanity. Of course, with Calvin on the loose, things are getting a lot less tranquil by the moment.
There are a few missteps here, including a handful of disorienting shots from the creature’s point of view that serve no real purpose, and an unnecessarily bleak turn of events in the third act, but Life has more than enough tension and terror to keep audiences engaged – at least until Scott’s original franchise returns to the screen in a few short months.