Sci-fi films have experienced a popular resurgence in recent years, making this a crowded universe in which to play. So, to stand out, a film needs original ideas or a point of difference to carve its own path in the universe.
‘Life’, starting with its generic title, struggles to find that originality, and yet still manages to thrill thanks to solid performances by its big-name cast and tense and thrilling action set aboard the ISS.
Best described as ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ meets ‘Gravity’ meets ‘Alien’, ‘Life’ tells of a group of astronauts who discover proof of life beyond earth, within soil samples retrieved from Mars. A nightmare unfolds when the single-celled organism escapes containment and quickly evolves into a parasitic predator which threatens to take down the space station, and everyone on it.
If that plot sounds familiar, it’s because there’s no denying that this film borrows liberally from some of the most iconic sci-fi canon, while grounding the horror elements in a not-too-distant-future sense of realism.
There are, however, a few factors which save ‘Life’ from being sucked into a black hole of mediocrity. Despite having the A-list talent of Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson in the cast, there is no main character, and equal time is given to each of the astronauts and their backstories. This has the benefit of keeping the action from being too predictable, and keeping the audience guessing who’ll next meet their grisly end.
The film is almost entirely shot in and around the ISS, and as a location, it ratchets up the tension, giving us cramped quarters to navigate, little room for error and camerawork which disorientates as it floats and twists in zero gravity.
The cast is small, but stellar. Ryan Reynolds plays Mission Specialist Rory Adams – cracking wise from a script by Deadpool screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, while Gyllenhaal plays the astro-medic David Jordan, who’s spent more than a year in space, and is contemplating his return to earth. Rebecca Ferguson has a commanding role as Miranda North, who is tasked with quarantine and disease control, while the rest of the crew put the “international” in “International Space Station”, hailing from countries including Russia, Japan and the UK.
‘Life’ is a film that feels so familiar, yet kept viewers on the edge of their seats for most of its runtime. It doesn’t pull punches when it comes to shock and violence, but offers little to push boundaries in an already busy genre.