'Life' Beats 'Alien: Covenant' To The Punch

By James Jay Edwards
Released: March 24, 2017
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An international space crew discovers life on Mars.

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Film Review
There's been a fun little fan theory going around that Life, the new sci-fi horror movie from Sony, is a prequel to another recently announced Sony movie, the Spider-Man spinoff Venom. True or not, it's good publicity for a movie that, frankly, should be seen.

Life is about a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station that retrieves a probe full of samples from Mars. While experimenting with the samples, a British scientist named Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare from Jupiter Ascending) learns that the test samples are alive, and he can bring them out of hibernation by controlling the temperature and atmosphere of the control space.

At first, Derry and his teammates, a crew which also consists of Russian Mission Commander Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya from House of Others), Japanese mission specialist Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada from The Wolverine), American mission specialist Rory Adams (Deadpool himself Ryan Reynolds), British physician Miranda North (The Girl on the Train's Rebecca Ferguson), and American physician David Jordan (Nightcrawler's Jake Gyllenhaal), are amazed by their discovery, even nicknaming the life form "Calvin." Soon, amazement turns to fear as the team realizes that Calvin is growing at an alarming rate.and it isn't exactly friendly.

Rebecca Ferguson in LIFE, photo courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment 2017.

If that sounds familiar, it should, and not because of the Venom angle. Life is essentially Ridley Scott's Alien updated for modern times. Or maybe it's backdated, since Alien takes place in the future while Life is present day. Either way, it's basically the same story; it's a slasher in space. The screenplay, written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the guys who also wrote Deadpool and Zombieland), doesn't exactly retell the story beat-for-beat, but the broad strokes are the same.

Lucky for Life (and, by extension, for its audience), Alien is a good blueprint, because even though the plot points match up, Life is still one hell of an enjoyable ride. Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) keeps the intensity high while still allowing the audience to connect with the characters. Life is a great mix of high concept and high art.

Ryan Reynolds in LIFE, photo courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment 2017.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds may be the names above the titles (alone with Rebecca Ferguson), but Life is an ensemble movie; every single member of the six-person crew is important to the story, and every single member of the cast brings his or her respective character to life (no pun intended). Some are more likeable than others (Reynolds' charismatic performance steals his scenes), but all are convincing, even when the half-hearted dialogue lets them down.

But no one's there for the deep conversations. The alien is a cool shapeshifting parasitic jellyfish looking thing. It probably isn't Venom, but who cares? Life is a great movie anyway.
Life opens with an absolutely breathtaking scene that seems as if it's trying to out-Gravity Gravity. The scene, showing the team retrieving the deep-space probe as it hurdles towards the ISS, is quite a pulse-pounder. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (who has shot everything from high action like The Avengers and Godzilla to deep thinkers such as Nocturnal Animals and We Need to Talk About Kevin) uses the camera as a character, sliding and gliding with the astronauts as they prepare for the "interception" of the probe. One person (of course, it's Ryan Reynolds' character) has to physically go outside the station, spacewalking to the mechanism that will be used to catch the speeding craft. The entire scene is so tense that it goes on for about seven or eight minutes before the viewer realizes that there are no edits - yes, it's a one-take. And all of this occurs before the "LIFE" title card even shows up onscreen. The audience knows that Life is going to be a thrill ride right from the very first frame.

Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal in LIFE, photo courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment 2017.

Then again, the majority of Life takes place within the claustrophobic confines of the International Space Station, so McGarvey gets to show off his versatility as well by capturing the narrow corridors and tight quarters. Again, the camera becomes another resident on the craft, peeking over shoulders and peering through windows to show the audience what it needs to see. The fluid camerawork also lends itself to the feel of weightlessness that the characters experience in space. McGarvey borrows from Emmanuel Lubezki's book of Gravity (and Birdman, and The Revenant) with the photography for Life, and he couldn't have picked a better influence; it works wonderfully.
Scary Factor
While it's no Alien in the fright department, Life is fairly scary. There's a refreshing lack of jump scares in Life (and, unlike Alien, no cat scares), the film instead leaning on its lifeboat theme to instill fear in its audience. The containment of the location, the liquidity of the alien, and the short temperament of the crew all contribute to a taut and suspenseful stretch of filmmaking. And it's all done with very little blood and guts. It's the philosophical ideas in Life that are scary, the fear of an unknown organism (or whole civilization of them) that gives the viewers chills. The possibility that something like Calvin is out there will keep anyone awake at night.

Jake Gyllenhaal in LIFE, photo courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment 2017.

Horror, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Release Date
March 24, 2017
MPAA Rating
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