There’s only one Alien. The ultimate haunted-house-in-space movie has spawned many wannabe replicators over the years, along with a dodgy sequel/prequel in the form of the excruciatingly dull Prometheus. Hopes are high for Ridley Scott’s upcoming Alien: Covenant, set to either reinvigorate the series or put it to bed for good, thanks to a bad-ass trailer and even gnarlier poster.
In the meantime, though, Life will fill the gap for space-based frights quite nicely. Not to be confused with the dreadful 2015 film of the same name about James Dean, equal parts Alien and Gravity, the sci-fi/horror schocker from director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House, Child 44), from a script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the duo behind Deadpool), didn’t make enough of a splash with the multiplex crowd on either side of the ocean when it was released earlier this month.
But it should have done. Because it’s really fucking nasty.
With these kinds of big budget (Life was made for $58 million, which isn’t huge money but still notable), star-studded productions (Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal and Deadpool himself, Ryan Reynolds, all star) there’s a tendency to sanitize the material, in order to make it more palatable, to attract the biggest audience possible. Dudes with their girlfriends don’t want to see someone being choked from the inside out, to be fair.
In fact, this dumbing down of darker subject matter is such a normal occurrence that, at the screening I attended, someone in front yelled “oh god no!” once it started getting rough. And rough it does get, with (awful, CGI) blood splattered everywhere and a couple of brutal casualties in quick succession. Much has been made about one of the bigger names perishing early on, and it is indeed a shock (not to mention truly horrifying).
However, Life‘s true, B-movie genius, lies in its ability to consistently put its ostensibly super-smart group of scientists and engineers in real, considerable danger. They act quickly and effectively, but they’re up against a being they don’t quite understand and who will always be one step ahead of them no matter what. Rather than running upstairs, they run into walls at every turn (in zero gravity, no less).
The alien in question is the cutely-named Calvin, a jellyfish-like creature who grows at an alarming pace once he gets a taste for mammal blood (watch out for the loose seal!). Watching him slink around the maze-like International Space Station is genuinely unnerving, particularly when he squares up to one member of staff, confined to a pod as the creature menacingly stares through from the other side.
Sci-fi fans will find little new here, aside from glaringly obvious nods to Gravity, Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, among others, which will either delight or infuriate depending on how much you can buy into the central conceit. Where those movies blended horror and sci-fi elements together, Life is primarily focused on scaring us and, as a result, the space stuff comes second–though thankfully it’s still well-researched and considered.
It helps that the cast are game for selling their wickedly horrible (and by all accounts hopeless) predicament for all its worth, Ferguson a fearless leader forced to make tough decisions and Gyllenhaal doing that weird, squinty Nightcrawler thing he does that suggests maybe he’s hiding something sinister behind those big bug eyes. Reynolds is his usual smarmy self, but still believable as a blue collar worker in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But Calvin is the star of the show here, and rightly so. Even as Life hurtles towards a “gotcha” twist that the majority of cinema-literate folk will see coming a mile off, there’s no doubt that the world’s very first Martian discovery is more than the human race can handle. And definitely more of a threat than we could have ever imagined. If May 19 can’t come quick enough for you, Life should sate your appetite until Alien: Covenant is unleashed.