Daniel Espinosa’s “Life” is a lean, mean studio B-movie that knows how to move. Right from the start, screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick don’t waste time. The sci-fi thriller’s simplicity and brevity is one of its many strengths, in addition to some compelling performances, a genuinely nasty alien and a third act that finishes strong.
Calvin is the name given to the film’s antagonist, a deadly little organism (and the first sign of life discovered on Mars) that grows larger and more lethal over the course of the story. The alien wreaks havoc aboard an International Space Station inhabited by a team of scientists, including Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Katerine Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya). They’re all given personalities at an extremely efficient pace, so once the number of crew members begins to decline, it doesn’t feel like candy being tossed aside. The stakes are monumental in “Life,” and you can definitely feel it as the crew floats around in zero gravity trying to figure out how to kill this thing before it finds a way of reaching (and destroying) Earth.
“Life” is a pretty straightforward genre flick, but it isn’t thin. In fact, the simplicity that Reese and Wernick have achieved with movies like “Zombieland,” “Deadpool” and now “Life” is exhilarating in this day and age of bloated blockbusters. There’s not a single ounce of filler in these three films. They pick up and start running immediately, which Espinosa communicates in a lengthy opening take that is sometimes dazzling and sometimes a little obvious and strained. It’s the only scene where you’re aware of the filmmaker’s hand, but the sequence still has its moments. With the rest of the movie, Espinosa serves up an increasingly tense experience.
Part of what makes “Life” such an involving thriller is that the International Space Station is occupied by characters who don’t ring false; their shorthand and relationships are believable from the start. The film’s shock factor comes from watching characters witness their friends dying in extremely horrible ways. While “Life” is a big, sinister monster movie, it’s not without humanity. Espinosa and the screenwriters get clever with the death scenes, showing what an organism like Calvin might do to the human body. There’s some fine body horror on display here, but it also makes the audience feel the significance of a loss.
Espinosa and cinematographer Seamus McGravey often have the camera speeding around the space station to mimic Calvin’s movements. It’s almost like watching an aggressive ballet, knowing the technical difficulties involved with depicting zero gravity and seeing how gracefully and fludily the camera tracks all the movement and action.
Additionally, the performances are all top-notch. It’s hard to say too much about them without giving anything away, but some actors accomplish quite a bit with little screen time. The film moves at such a fast pace that there’s hardly any time to slow down for character moments – or dry exposition, for that matter – but the cast, especially Reynolds, can say a lot without saying much. From the performances to the set pieces to the clean storytelling, “Life” is an all-around satisfying popcorn movie.