“You don’t know what it can do.”
What happens when humanity’s biggest downfall proves to be none other than itself? As a set of six ambitious, yet naive astronauts portray in Life, the possibilities dealt by such a stirring realization are nothing short of terrifying, especially as shit very quickly hits the fan. After managing to procure a sample from the surface of Mars, the group is assigned with the task of studying what could very well be the first evidence of life outside of Earth. Naturally, in a similar vein of countless sci-fi films that came before, such a plan never bodes well. Despite the obvious Alien influence and occasionally delving into silly, almost laughable turns, Life does manage to hold its own weight, justifying itself as a thrilling, welcome addition to the ever-expanding genre.
As director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44, Safe House) clearly understands, one of human nature’s greatest gifts might just be its innate curiosity, the deep, uncontainable desire to unravel the world’s mysteries and comprehend the impossible. On the other hand, though, such an appetite to grapple with the great unknown is perhaps also its very Achilles heel, as the crew aboard the Mars Pilgrim 7 Mission swiftly discover. After celebrating the acquisition of their Mars specimen, it only takes a bit of poking around until they realize that the newest addition to their ship is actually the last visitor they’d want to allow through their door. While the marketing for the film has relied on the faces of its most recognizable names — namely Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds — Life is far more than its A-listers, rounded out by strong performances by the rest of its impressively diverse ensemble.
Directly in charge of examining the foreign organism, British scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare, a warm, magnetic presence) is the most excited of the crew members, eager to determine the uncharted potential of the single-celled life form, which the gang soon lovingly dubs as “Calvin”. Lo and behold, of course, Calvin quickly outgrows his small, enclosed environment, multiplying in size, intelligence, and hostility after further risky prodding. Not everybody is as warm to Calvin, however. Perhaps the most wary of the bunch is Hugh’s British ally, Dr. Miranda North (Ferguson, always a delight), who approaches the perplexities of such a discovery with great caution, and rightly so.
While Reynolds’s Roy Adams initially serves as the film’s rare, yet predictable source of comic relief (which also seems to be his only job?), the comfort of such humor swiftly dwindles as Calvin evolves into no laughing matter, sucking the life out of the formerly unimpaired ship. As the organism spins completely out of control, his alarming, unruly evolution serves as a metaphor for the human tendency to foolishly underestimate the unknown, only for them to realize that there lies a too-fine line between curiosity and chaos. One by one, Calvin comes for each individual, his mere survival dependent on taking life from another.
Despite Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s (who both wrote Deadpool) valiant attempts to keep the story grounded in reality, a few stylistic choices simply do the film a disservice, taking away from such great potential. For one, as Calvin grows more powerful and thus more dangerous, there are a few moments in which the audience actually sees through his eyes, zipping through the confines of the expertly designed spacecraft, thirsting for blood. Unfortunately, the results ultimately come off as cheesy, cheapening the slick cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Nocturnal Animals, Godzilla). And once Calvin expands into bigger than life, Espinosa christens the once-indistinguishable organism with a face as an attempt to make him more frightening, only to cause the opposite, unintended effect.
Though Life certainly has its own share of flaws, its strengths make them almost forgivable, if not forgettable. The film hugely benefits from such an incredibly empathetic cast of characters (most notably Gyllenhaal’s Dr. David Jordan, whose backstory involves traumatic experiences in war) that it’s almost difficult not to root for every single one of them, even as they make dumb decisions time and time again. It’s also worth mentioning that not only is the cast culturally diverse (including a flight engineer from Japan named Sho Murakami, played by a wonderful Hiroyuku Sanada), but the strongest characters of the bunch are the women, led by a commander in Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). It’s a testament to each of their performances that even as everything crumbles down around them, as an ensemble, they are quite a joy to behold, as Espinosa gives each member of the cast an opportunity to shine.
It’s probably best to keep any expectations low, because despite its flaws, the film proves to be more satisfying and gripping than it seems on the surface. Life is appropriately more tense than it is funny, resulting in an entertaining, rousing ride worth the time and even the bad choices. Much like Calvin himself, Life is not to be underestimated.