Debris crashes into the spacecraft, which spins over a blue-limned horizon. Cue the operatic bombast and lens flare—it wouldn’t be Hollywood sci-fi without them. In Life, a team of space pioneers pay a visit to Mars, and return with a soil sample whose sentience can only mean trouble—if you’re ever seen a space movie (as indicated by their unapologetic fealty to sci-fi classics, the creators of Life have seen all of them), you’ll know exactly where this is going.
This E.T. is a sweetling at first. Earth’s school children give it a deceptively nonthreatening name—Calvin—and the ship’s paraplegic biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) nurtures it like a child. Cells move like magnetic filaments, coalescing at the skim of a finger. Breathlessly, he conveys the magnitude of this protozoan bean sprout to his fellow astronauts: “We’re looking at the first incontrovertible proof of life outside Earth.”
Hugh’s crew members look on in fascination—though it’s tempered with wariness. Calvin is a somatic miracle, a mercurial tendril of tissue—as quarantine officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) says, it’s “all muscle, all brain, all eye.” Over time it grows limbs like flower petals, translucent and veined. Miranda is relieved when it appears that Calvin has died, or at least gone to sleep. It’s evolved far too quickly—spores on steroids. But Hugh, with all the hubris of Icarus, is keen to play God, so he zaps Calvin back to life with a cattle prod. We all know what happens when you fly too close to the sun. If only the characters of Life shared our foresight.
The International Space Station’s six-member crew is a well-oiled team boasting plenty of fancy titles, but nothing has prepared them for Calvin. Ryan Reynolds is in full Deadpool mode (that’s no accident—writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick wrote both scripts) as Roy, the token wisecracking blue-collar guy. Jake Gyllenhaal is the brooding, soulful one—with eyes as big as planets—though even he can’t make the corny dialogue sincere. Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (who you might recognize from another sci-fi/horror film, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which shares plenty of DNA with Life) plays the engineer Sho, whose wife has just had a baby—yet another lazy sci-fi trope. They’re led by the Russian Commander Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya)—making our ship a miracle of international cooperation. The dialogue the crew delivers is barely serviceable. It exists mostly to remind us that these characters once existed outside of the space station. Back stories are tacked on perfunctorily, as breathers between the space-chases and slaughter—or as cruel ironies, considering the fates of our final girl and boy.
Once Calvin breaks free from the laboratory, the dominoes tip—one by one—into carnage. Life might be sub-par sci-fi, but Swedish director Daniel Espinosa is a virtuoso of body-horror ingenuity. Feast your eyes on the marvel of human misery in zero-gravity. Globules of gore hang in suspension. Tears float, iridescent, like bubbles. Bodies deflate, like the victims in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in a nauseating crunch. Calvin writhes, tentacles flailing—its movements have an unnerving, arachnid quality. Its design borrows heavily from H. R. Giger’s nightmarish xenomorphs in the Alien franchise, with its reptilian face and sea-monster elasticity.
There’s no point in trying to hide the film’s influences, and Life borrows generously (as Reynolds’ character says upon first seeing the alien, “this is some Re-Animator shit”). Alien is Life’s most obvious muse. It mirrors the dizziness of Gravity, and even has faint echoes of Tarkovsky’s Solaris—though the composite of these influences is a half-baked husk of its predecessors. Like another recent alien film, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, Life attempts to imagine the breathless wonder of discovering extraterrestrial life. But where Arrival conjures sublime, rhapsodic terror of the first encounter—Life pales in comparison.
Science fiction often strives to explore what is to be human. Life is a cold gulp of nihilism—it evades the humanity altogether. Instead it inquires what is to be a body—a thing of bones and blood and empty space. At times the film aligns with Calvin in trippy, phantasmagoric sequences which throttle us into his kaleidoscopic point-of-view. These scenes at first appear to be jarring mistakes. But the identification with Calvin’s bloodlust is appropriate. Life has no reverence for life—like Calvin, the film is a gourmand—its appetite for bodies is insatiable. Even the way the humans die betrays its cool fascination with slow, anatomical liquidation—this is what a hand looks like without bones. Here’s a head after you’ve crushed its brain like a fruit, blood billowing out like pomegranate seeds. Humans are tissue, salt, juice. When the crew members elect to sacrifice themselves, it seems only natural. Martyrdom doesn’t quite have the heroic shimmer we’re used to—in Life, it’s just another floating corpse. Unlike Arrival—whose squidlike aliens bestow Amy Adams with the gift of language—Calvin is not so benevolent. That is, unless, you abide by Hugh’s pitiless maxim: “Life requires destruction.” If that’s the case, behold its ravenous gifts.