Alien changed the shape of sci-fi when it became a smash hit forty years ago. Countless films (including many of its sequels) have tried to replicate its winning formula, usually to little success. The latest to take a crack at it is Daniel Espinosa’s Life. Being released just two months before Alien itself returns with Alien: Covenant, Life has even more reason to try to set itself apart. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really do that, but what’s missing in originality is made up for in nearly every other way.
Six crew members aboard the International Space Station are on a return mission from Mars, having just discovered and acquired a cell that proves that there is life beyond Earth. The cell is nicknamed Calvin and grows into a small multi-tentacled creature. All seems well until Calvin is able to break from his containment and begins trying to feed on the crew members. The crew must try to destroy, or at least contain, Calvin so that he does make it back to Earth, which would possibly put an end to humanity.
The concept of a six member crew trying to fight off a dangerous extraterrestrial that picks them off one by one is lifted verbatim from Alien, but it’s not exactly the same movie. Probably the biggest change is that Life takes place in modern times, as opposed to the far future found in Alien, so the film feels a lot more grounded in reality. All of the defense mechanisms and fight tactics used against Calvin are scientifically thought out and biologically based (which might remind you of The Martian). This gives the film a chilling sense of realism, as it seems like a very realistic portrayal of how this scenario might play out if it were to happen. Past that, it’s pretty much the same.
But if it’s not very original, it needs to at least be well made. And thankfully, it is. Many viewers underestimate the importance of good characters in a movie like this, but you need to feel connected to them if you are to have any sort of reaction to what happens to them. Life takes another tip from Alien in this department and spends time early on establishing their backstories and personalities. They may not be incredibly fleshed out, but this is still a creature feature, and it’s enough to make you understand and support them. Acting is phenomenal all around. Rebecca Ferguson absolutely knocks it out of the park, while Ryan Reynolds is able to provide a bit of comic relief alongside his serious moments. Jake Gyllenhaal is incredibly overqualified for the demands of his role, but he is as excellent as you’d expect. The actors not on the poster (Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya) don’t have quite as much to do, but are still very effective in their roles.
The film is also technically brilliant. Life takes place on a fairly small ship, but the brilliant set design makes it look both big and spectacular. Cinematography takes a hint from 2013’s Gravity. The lack of that phenomenon on the ISS is felt as the camera follows the characters around weightlessly, moving upside down and doing flips. It could potentially be dizzying for some viewers, but most will probably recognize it as an effective directing style. The visual effects are fairly impressive for the modest budget. The octopus-like Calvin is a really cool sight to behold, and even if he isn’t meant to look scary, you’ll feel a chill every time he comes on screen.
The plot runs fairly smoothly as well. Tense scenes with Calvin are interspersed with some scenes of talking in safety. These help to build your relationship with the characters and ground the film without taking you off edge. And those tense scenes really are tense. The film truly is thrilling, and Espinosa proves to be great at directing horror. So, yes, Life is very derivative from Alien and quite a few other films before it, but it manages to still be an enjoyable time by simply being well made. And it does have a few surprises up its sleeve. The film ends on a particularly grim note that will remind you of old school horror twists.