Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) and David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Life (Sony Pictures Entertainment)
It is easy to assume that Life could be a very different movie, based on the recent resurgence of prestige movies about outer space. Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian and Arrival all deal with space exploration in ways that are more intellectual than most would expect, featuring complex performances by A-list actors doing some of their best work. Life is not that type of film, nor will it be to Jake Gyllenhaal what The Martian was to Matt Damon, but its aspirations are different. It is an old-fashioned scary movie about monsters that has no pretensions to be anything more lofty and succeeds at precisely what it sets out to accomplish. Life is not only in the vein of Alien, it owes so much to the 1979 classic that Ridley Scott should demand residuals.
Life stars Gyllenhaal as David Jordan, a doctor on a space mission that has retrieved the first signs of life on Mars. He and the other five crew members on the space station study this nascent form of life as it develops, until the lifeform (that they eventually name Calvin) becomes hostile and determined to kill each and every person on board.
Joining Gyllenhaal on this mission are Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson from the most recent Mission: Impossible film as the mission’s captain. Much like the first Alien movie, the cast is further comprised of a multi-ethnic group of supporting players who are destined to become food for the growing alien beast. The parallels between this and Ellen Ripley’s first adventure are so evident that one might have to nitpick to find differences between the two movies.
What Life and Alien do have in common, fortunately, is that both are expert scary movies. They are essentially horror films dressed up as science-fiction (much like James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, re-imagined the franchise into a war movie set in space). The film may raise some questions about the ethics of interacting with life on other planets, but those are just minor distractions that connect the scenes when Calvin terrorizes the space station’s crew. Expecting a horror movie to have some greater thematic significance is somewhat pointless. Life does what it is supposed to do, scaring the audience with scenes of blood and guts (For the squeamish, nothing in the film approaches the gore of an Eli Roth movie, but there are moments when people might want to look away.).
Gyllenhaal has turned in some of his most impressive performances in recent years, foremost with his career-best work in Nightcrawler, but this is not one of his more challenging performances. He has to serve primarily as the audience surrogate and look convincing enough floating around the space station, both of which he does. If this paycheck for a big-budget film allows him the room to do more work in smaller films like Nocturnal Animals, it will be a success. The same can be said of Ferguson, a consistently solid performer who may be capable of far more than she has been asked to do on screen thus far. Reynolds, freed of the demands to be the film’s hero, has the most fun of the cast because it is he who is most in his element. Reynolds excels at finding the joy in lightweight material, and at his best, he is able to signal that because he is having such a good time, so should the audience.
Life may not be a very innovative movie, since it steals everything it can from the original Alien, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in effectiveness. Why fault director Daniel Espinosa, after all, for so studiously following what worked tremendously well before? The budget may be bigger and the effects superior to those from 1979, but the result is the same. Now and forever, in space, no one can hear you scream.
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