Wow. I really had no idea what to expect from Life, which I knew virtually nothing about other than that it was a horror sci-fi starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal (I didn’t even watch a single trailer). Such movies are usually a disappointment, so I am glad to report that I was thrilled with Life, a strong contender for biggest pleasant surprise of the year.
I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone, so I will simply say that the film takes place in the International Space Station following the return of a soil-collecting mission to Mars. I guess the title of the film explains the rest.
There are no big surprises in terms of the basic plot and its progression—you can more or less guess what happens on a general overall level. However, its the way director Daniel Espinosa deals with the story, characters and tension that makes Life one of the better if not best “man should not mess with nature” sci-fi horrors. It’s way better than the most recent one in the genre I watched, Morgan (from last year), and a notch above other ones I remember such as Splice (2009) and The Last Days on Mars (2013).
After an initial set-up introducing us to the premise and the characters, Life buckles down and becomes a terrifying and gripping horror movie that makes great use of man’s fear of the unknown and the claustrophobia provided by the interior of the space station. Some sci-fi movies are good at delivering an interesting idea but not at horror, while some horror movies are good at deliver the horror but not interesting ideas. Life is a rare film that manages to do both really well, and more than once I found myself either gripping the seat rest or reaching for my wife’s hand.
The film would not have been as effective but for the strong performances of the star cast, which apart from Gyllenhaal and Reynolds also includes Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation‘s Rebecca Ferguson, The Last Samurai‘s Hiroyuki Sanada, British actor Ariyon Bakare (most recently seen in Rogue One), and Belarusian actress Olga Dihovichnaya. One of the weaknesses of the film is that there’s not a whole lot of character development (they’re too busy being terrified), and the dialogue designed to promote character development was often clunky, but the performances are good enough that you still end up thinking of them as real people and caring about their fate.
Additionally, the special effects are excellent, not just with the creature designs but also the space station itself as well as the outer space sequences. It’s great that CGI is so good these days that you don’t even think about it and simply accept it as real. You can also tell proper research was undertaken to make the science in the film feel legitimate.
I don’t want to create unrealistic expectations because there are limits to what a film like Life can achieve. Within those limits, however, it mostly ticks all the right boxes and hits the right notes to give us a genuinely terrifying, thoughtful, well-scripted and well-acted horror sci-fi. It may fall short of becoming a classic, but it’s certainly worth watching if you are a fan of the genre.
4 stars out of 5