Mar 24, 2017blog, review

Life - A creepy-crawly space station nightmare

As we send out probe after probe specifically intended to hunt for life beyond earth, it doesn’t seem as unlikely as it once did that we might actually find some. So it’s an appropriate time for flicks like Life, which imagine what might happen if that life turns out to be not so friendly.

In the near future, a space probe carrying precious Martian samples is grabbed by a souped-up international space station, and the six-astronaut crew investigate the traces of life aboard, keeping it quarantined in the relative isolation of the orbiting laboratory.

Named Calvin by school kids back on earth, the cells begin to reanimate, and grow alarmingly fast. It goes downhill from there.

Life tries, with varying success, to mix the body horror and claustrophobia of Alien with the high-octane zero-gee excitement of Gravity, Interstellar and other modern orbital thrill-rides.

All the tropes are firmly in place: tracking an unknown terror on motion sensors, limited weaponry, astronauts being picked off one by one. Even the typography of the opening title is shamelessly lifted from Ridley Scott’s classics.

The international space station is an intriguing setting, taking inspiration from the present-day station and bulking it up considerably to reflect a decade or so of future expansion. The passageways, nooks and crannies lend themselves so perfectly to this kind of suspenseful horror it’s a wonder no one’s thought of it before. There’s clear attention to detail in the design of the station.

Gyllenhaal gets the most to do of the six astronauts, but we never really get to know him.

The astronauts remain paper-thin sketches, with just enough personality added into the mix to make them believable, but viewers will struggle to name a single character hours after leaving the cinema.

It’s the nature of the sci-fi horror genre that the characters are scientists - presumably well-trained, level-headed professionals. Yet, those characters need to fail gratuitously: blundering into quarantine zones, making all the wrong choices, simply in order to drive the plot.

It’s a balancing act that 2013’s Prometheus got completely wrong, for instance. It’s better executed here - just well enough to keep you believing that these ISS astronauts do actually know what they’re doing ninety per cent of the time.

Life is finely-strung and genuinely suspenseful, but only really comes into its own once it makes it clear that the extraterrestrial Calvin won’t be defeated by conventional means. After all, even Ripley eventually managed to dispatch Alien’s xenomorph.

And without spoilers, the bait and switch coming into play for the film’s final scene is masterful, finally delivering on the potential the film had been holding back to that point. It’s the closing moments which make Life worth the price of admission.