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Review – ‘Life’ Finds a Way to Deliver Slick Thrills Despite the Generic Setup

By  · Published on March 23rd, 2017

‘Life’ Finds a Way to Deliver a Fun Thrill Ride Despite the Generic Setup

A compelling cast, an intelligent enemy, and slick thrills make for an entertaining slice of sci-fi/horror.

As much as films like Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures want us to believe otherwise, space-set horror films have shown us again and again that astronauts really aren’t all that bright. How else to explain the endless display of scientists and space explorers who encounter a previously unknown alien life-form and against all common sense decide it’s probably something they should touch?

That’s the immediate hurdle the new film Life needs to overcome even before the the first frame appears, and while the moment in question is a definite stumbling block the movie still succeeds in becoming a highly entertaining and often suspenseful ride into darkness.

A six-person crew aboard the International Space Station have just brought an interplanetary sample aboard, and they’re thrilled to discover it contains an alien being. It’s microscopic and inert, but with a little cajoling the creature stirs back to life and begins growing. The crew celebrates, people of earth rejoice (via satellite feeds) at the discovery, and then all hell breaks loose along with the alien itself.

The small, blob-like creature displays a frightening intelligence making it a formidable foe, and after a few chaotic moments the crew find themselves thrust into an emergency situation. The alien grows with each ingestion of, well, life, and soon comes to resemble a fleshy, translucent mix between the aquatic angels of James Cameron’s The Abyss and the re-animated colon and kidneys from Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. It works though, I swear. As the already small crew sees their numbers dwindle it becomes clear that they’re fighting for more than just their own lives – they’re fighting for earth itself.

Daniel Espinosa’s latest is a return to the energy and narrative vitality he displayed with 2012’s Safe House (and neglected with 2015’s Child 44) ensuring that Life is an exciting thriller without a dull beat to be found. The film’s only bumps come via a script (by Zombieland’s Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) that gets the big things right while dropping the ball on multiple smaller issues.

The film’s immediate strength comes in the form of characters who feel like fleshed out individuals. They’re real in their interactions and personalities, and none of them are of the obnoxious “jerk” cliche destined to cause trouble down the road. Instead they’re good people caught in a nightmare, and the characters are emboldened even further through engaging and charismatic performances.

Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ryan Reynolds are the big names here, and all do great work, but their lesser known co-stars are every bit as compelling. Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya, and Hiroyuki Sanada round out the crew, and all six deliver characters we hope to see survive.

Bakare plays the scientist mentioned in the opening above, but while we still get an otherwise brilliant man sticking his finger someplace he shouldn’t the script and Bakare’s performance soften the blow. The character is hobbled by disease, and not only does this new life form offer the possibility of medical advances but it also becomes something of a surrogate “child” for the man without a family of his own. “It’s curiosity outweighs its fear,” says one of the crew, and they could just as easily be speaking of themselves. Sure it still leads to disaster, but the motivation goes a long way in our acceptance.

Other script bumps fare less well. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that this is an older effort from Reese and Wernick, one pulled from a dusty drawer and sold after their recent successes. It’s lacking their humor for one thing and instead feels like a simple stab at a genre picture, but it’s also riddled with small annoyances in the form of poor choices by characters who should know better and plot beats that reek of convenience.

“How will we know which thruster the alien’s in?! Argh! Oh hey, maybe we can use these thruster sensors?”

I’m paraphrasing, but it’s pretty silly.

The other big issue is a Jason Blum-sized reliance on loud sound cues to let viewers know they should be scared. Rather than trust the terror of the situation and our concern for the characters in peril, Espinosa insists on punctuating “jump scares” with sonic stings. They’re really the only part of the film that feel cheap.

Life doesn’t really do anything new here – well, aside from the rarity of pairing two A-list actors in a genre piece – but minor stupidities aside it succeeds in delivering a thrilling, suspenseful piece of entertainment.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.