Directed by: Daniel Espinosa | 104 minutes | horror, science fiction, thriller | Actors: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jesus Del Orden, Allen McLean, Leila Grace Bostwick-Riddell, Mari Gvelesiani, David Muir, Elizabeth Vargas, Camiel Warren-Taylor, Haruka Kuroda, Naoko Mori, Alexandre Nguyen, Hiu Woong-Sin
The planet Mars has a very strong attraction for us earthlings. ‘Is there life on Mars’, David Bowie sang in 1971. Why do we want to know so much? If you take a dive into film history, you will see that the discovery of life on the red planet often does not bode well. Titles such as ‘The Thing from Another World’ (1951), ‘Invaders from Mars’ (1953), ‘The War of the Worlds’ (also 1953, the time when ‘space paranoia’ reigned supreme), ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956) and ‘The Day Mars Invaded Earth’ (1963) are scary enough, you might say. But in the years that followed, filmmakers (and writers) continued to have a fascination for extraterrestrial life. Somehow we hope that we are not the only living souls in the cosmos, but as soon as the discovery of extraterrestrial life is made public, the fear of the unknown hits hard. Because how intelligent, strong and inventive are those ‘aliens’? Can we handle them? Humanity tends to overestimate its own abilities, but how do we relate to life we are totally unfamiliar with? With that fact, ‘Life’ (2017), the science-fiction thriller by Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa, the man behind the crime thriller ‘Snabba Cash’ (2010) and the spy film ‘Safe House’ (2012), starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.
We also see the same Reynolds in ‘Life’, as Rory Adams, an American technician overflowing with bravado in an international team of astronauts aboard the ISS, the International Space Station. On board are technical engineers, doctors and officers from the USA, Great Britain, Russia and Japan: Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), Drs. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), and Supreme Commander Katharina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). They successfully land a space probe with a Martian soil sample on board and discover a single-celled organism: the first unequivocal proof that there is life on the red planet is celebrated, also on Earth where the ‘catch’ during a mass gathering in Times Square is affectionately renamed ‘Calvin’. After some atmospheric adjustments, biologist Hugh Derry even gets Calvin ‘to talk’: he moves, grows quickly and turns out to be not only very strong but also super intelligent. And Calvin doesn’t like the electric shocks Hugh gives him when he sleeps. In fact: it pisses him off big time. Before long, Calvin escapes from his hermetically sealed cell and attacks every living thing in his path.
In the genre ‘space thriller’ it is not easy to come up with an original. Fortunately, ‘Life’ does not pretend that and is in fact just as original as its title. Under the motto ‘better stolen well than badly conceived’, screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese (the team behind 2016’s wonderfully contrarian and surprisingly funny superhero film ‘Deadpool’) took inspiration from classics such as ‘Alien’ (1979); Calvin is styled exactly as you’d expect, especially in the later stages. So ‘Life’ doesn’t have to rely on its inventiveness; of what? This film has a few strong trump cards. First of all there is the atmosphere, which is on the one hand oppressive (what do you want, you can’t go anywhere in a spaceship, no matter how many compartments it has) and increasingly frightening, but at the same time quite realistic. And that perhaps makes it all the more oppressive: the idea that it could really happen like this. Calvin is already turning out to be a murderous creature, who prefers to kill his victims by mouth (where did we see that before?). The more victims he makes, the more powerful he becomes. The tension is thus greatly increased, still firmly cranked up by the music, and a nerve-wracking climax is worked towards, which turns out to be surprising. In addition to the atmosphere and suspense, ‘Life’ also has an excellent cast, with Gyllenhaal and Ferguson as the biggest assets. The characters are not ‘puppets’, who patiently await their fate, but people of flesh and blood with understandable motives and where possible some form of backstory. So people like you and me. Fortunately, we are not in their shoes.
‘Life’ does not excel in originality, but holds its own without any effort due to its tension, rock-solid acting, visual splendor and high entertainment value. Fans of the classic sci-fi horror genre can have fun with this occasionally gory, but certainly entertaining space thriller.