It's impressive that a movie taking place in the middle of an endless universe feels incredibly claustrophobic. This is what Life set out to do in its brisk 110 minute runtime, nailing its objective with every sharp turn on the ISS space ship.
Life starts out by introducing its team of scientists who have abandoned Earth for various numbers of months in favor of exploring the cosmos and searching for signs of its title. Stepping on the gas to start things off as a satellite comes crashing towards the idle space station and Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds) heading outside of the station's confides to ensure its safe arrival. It's no surprise, but Reynolds plays the space outlaw who is eager to be a hero in an absolutely necessary to the film role. Without his warm quips and touches of dialogue, meeting the rest of the cast could have fallen flat.
Beautiful shots of the endless world surrounding the crew make the film feel gigantic in its opening moments, only to enclose the walls and make the setting one of the film's most intimidating factors.
Unfortunately for the crew, Roy's heroic efforts to catch the satellite landed the first discovery of (very hostile) alien life on their station. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is eager to meet and befriend this life form rather than observe and study it. Like a giddy school boy, he enjoys the alien's presence and literally pokes it until a response is visible. The interest ultimately costs him his hand in the movie's first (of many) truly horrific run-ins with the alien who goes on to be named "Calvin" by a little girl on Earth representing her elementary school.
Calvin does not come in peace. Nor does he go down easily. In fact, the alien makes easy work of dispatching humans in genius fashion with little explanation for how a creature which was a single cell moments ago became incredibly strong, smart, and versatile so quickly. It can be looked at as making the creature that much more intimidating or just a lack of interest in explaining the film's monster.
The creature puts in a strong bid to be the star of the film as the rest of the characters achieve a fair balance, never stepping too far ahead of another in terms of importance or performance. It's easy to ruin a film with an alien creature which ends up looking preposterous. Luckily for Life, the creature which evolves throughout its screen time only grows more fierce as it terrorizes the crew of the ISS and terrifies audiences, never taking a break to look silly or completely unbelievable.
Rounding out the cast are Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Olga Dihovichnaya, and Hiroyuka Sanada as Miranda North, David Jordan, Katerina Golovkina, and Sho Murakami, respectively. Each brings a different dynamic to the film with Ferguson playing the hard-nosed captain, Gyllenhaal is struggling to accept evils of humanity, Dihovichnaya is the stern protector, and Sanada is charged with bringing the film a touch of heart.
That said, what prevents Life from reaching the stars when it comes to movie history is its lack of heart. While Sanada plays the part of father we want to see return to his new daughter and Bakare brilliantly pulls off the genuinely innocent and interesting troubled scientist (whose excitement strongly outweighs his realizations of danger), they are not enough to give us a reason to root for the crew's survival apart from the fact that they're like us: human. Still, it's those two actors who make the most of their screen time. They are, however, closely followed by Gyllenhaal and Ferguson's chemistry which offers up their sad desperation.
As violent death begins to consume the screen in the vein of the original Alien films, with crew members looking on in the same agony the audience will, Life goes from solely being a sci-fi adventurer to a horror thriller on a space ship. It masterfully manages to pull off the elements of the latter genre as though it were a simple checklist but doesn't seem to want to accept its place within that classification. Instead of fully embracing the survival flick Life turns into, the film elects to reach towards being a purposeful sci-fi film when it doesn't appear to have the depth.
Still, Life is sci-fi thriller at its best. It's terrifying. The movie is a non-stop thrill ride, with high stakes, terror, and intense moments around every corner. You'll have to buckle up and never look back with this film, as it's the most thrilling trip to the movies since Alien. Director Daniel Espinosa crafted a movie unlike anything you'll have experienced before it. Just don't head into the theater looking for anything too much deeper than a claustrophobic film based purely on survival.
Bottom Line: Life seems to refuse to accept its identity as a sci-fi horror film but provides a thrilling, disturbing, claustrophobic space tale. 4-of-5