Director - Daniel Espinosa
Cast - Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare
Rating - 4/5
In space no one can hear you scream
What you just read is a tagline. It’s poetic, yes - pure music to film geeks the world over, yes. A work of movie marketing genius, by most accounts. But it’s a tagline. And almost 40 years have passed, but no other has come even remotely close to capturing the tone of the movie it’s selling with such concise, chilling and underappreciated success.
It’s not often we talk about movie taglines. But this one, for Ridley Scott’s classic creature feature Alien, is worth talking about, even 40 years after audiences first saw it on that equally iconic poster. Especially now that Life, the new space thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson, is out. The movie is, to put it plainly, like a mutated clone birthed in a secret government lab using smuggled Alien DNA, but unlike the dozens of other films it has inspired, Life probably comes closest to not seeming like an out and out rip off, and takes, against all expectations, a life of its own.
For one, it’s remarkably well made. Almost too well made in fact, for the sort of film it is (a largely derivative thriller which borrows heavily not only from the goofy monster movies of the ‘50s, but also from gory ‘80s horror and pulpy ‘90s action).
In it, a crew of six racially and culturally diverse astronauts carrying out important scientific experiments on the International Space Station intercepts a cargo vessel which is said to have discovered a mysterious organism on Mars. It’s microscopic, a single cell of life that in itself is an achievement worth writing home about.
And indeed, back on Earth, everyone’s losing their minds over what important heads on Times Square’s massive LED screens are calling the greatest discovery in the history of mankind. And our brave crew is tasked with bringing it back home. But over the next few weeks, what used to look like a wondrous, inanimate version of Baby Groot begins showing signs of intelligence. At first, it’s just small movements; a slight twitch, a steady growth in size, a noticeable reaction to its environment, to touch, to warmth. But before you can say “Run!” the tiny cell (which they’ve christened Calvin, the idiots) begins consuming literally everything it can sense in the goriest, most stomach-churning manner possible.
It is explained to us, in just one scene of expertly crafted terror, that there is no stopping Calvin. It will continue getting stronger. It will continue getting bigger. It will continue killing. One by one.
And in space, no one can hear you scream.
What struck me most about Life was how well it was written. Really, it’s so rare these days to see such a solidly put together piece of popcorn entertainment. By definition, these movies are supposed to be filled with plot holes and cardboard characters, convenient contrivances and pathetic, laughable dialogue. But not Life, no.
You couldn’t tell it, but it’s the handiwork of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whom the nerdiest of readers will remember as ‘the real heroes’ behind Deadpool. With Life, they’ve managed to deliver a masterclass in blockbuster movie writing. It’s a meta commentary on the very nature of these movies – especially the violent slasher horror films it so lovingly rips off.
There’s so much that could have gone wrong. God knows we see it happen often enough. There’s so much explaining to do, made up science-y gobbledygook to deliver with a straight face, so many wafer thin characters to develop just enough for us to care about their survival.
Remember how The Martian made you feel like a genius? How every time Matt Damon would explain a complicated potato farming scheme, and you’d nod away like it was Nigella Lawson whispering a cake recipe? Well, Life chooses to completely ignore exposition, which, if you really think about it, is a rather bold move.
Sure, this also means that a lot of plot elements remain mostly unexplained. And sure, the whole thing looks like Gravity, sounds like Interstellar and feels like Alien anyway, but it never explains itself, or feels the need to explain itself. And soon, as you are wont to do when faced with these situations, you stop resisting. You stop comparing it to the other films it’s borrowing from, simply because of the honesty with which it is going about it.
And finally, a word about director Daniel Espinosa, who I feel never really lived up to the promise of his terrific Swedish debut Snabba Cash. He was given several big-ticket projects to work on when he moved to Hollywood (he first worked with Ryan Reynolds in Safe House, and then with Tom Hardy in Child 44), but be honest, do you remember either of those movies? And he very nearly stuffs up the landing in this one too (the final scene simply doesn’t work). But the movie leading up to it is made with such well-oiled precision, delights in such gleefully claustrophobic chills, it’s difficult to resist.
Watch the Life trailer here