★★★ / ★★★★
As someone who works with microorganisms, the sci-fi horror movie “Life,” directed by Daniel Espinosa, is an expected but most welcome surprise. Think about it: there is something innately creepy or unsettling about dealing with something alive, potentially harmful, that we cannot see with a naked eye. This picture takes advantage of that concept for as long as it is able. Clearly inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic “Alien,” similarly crew members with a sense of humor who share a certain camaraderie being forced to face unimaginable horrors in space following a discovery of alien life, it manages to hit the right notes consistently enough to overcome some of the clichés within the sub-genre, particularly in how just about each astronaut eventually undergoes a most gruesome demise.
Initially, I was unimpressed. For a sci-fi picture set in a space station with an ambition to create as realistic an environment as possible, I found it to be annoyingly loud and ostentatious. Compare this to greats of the genre, especially alongside Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The harder it tries to engage the audience through visuals and sounds, an the air of detachment is all the more amplified. “Odyssey” works because it simply shows what is while this film tries to appeal to what we imagine science fiction should be like rather than a set, settled reality. Further, the former relishes the quiet but the latter is afraid of it at times. As a result, I felt as though I were peering into a snow globe—curious but in the back of my mind a part of me wasn’t entirely convinced.
Equally bothersome during the first quarter is its inappropriate use and number of closeups. When there is a fascinating organism on screen, most of the attention should be on that creature. We already have an idea how everyone in the room must feel like—because we feel those similar emotions, too. There is no need to cut to the performers’ facial expressions every other two seconds (Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya). Doing so takes away some of the excitement and breeds frustration. We want to see what is on that petri dish and learn what it is capable of.
Eventually, however, the film proves capable of first-rate entertainment. The first attack by the extraterrestrial made me question my own safety, despite wearing personal protective equipment, when handling minuscule organisms. I admired how efficiently the camera traps us into an increasingly impossible situation as the biologist (Bakare) handles the life form in a containment cube. The editing commands a certain rhythm to it that makes us want to look away because it is built up in such a way that some thing is about to occur soon… yet we cannot help but stare wide-eyed since we crave to see what happens next. The early deaths are appropriately horrifying and creative. The camera lingers on their lifeless faces.
The look of the alien is inspired. I enjoyed how it reminded me of deep-sea jellyfish. It does not appear particularly solid but has convincing strength when it pounces on its prey. It looks translucent, but it is highly agile and versatile. Credit goes to the writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick for putting to life a creature that is intelligent, a real threat to the increasingly desperate characters. And credit goes to the special and visual effects team for creating a convincing monster, not just another uninspired CGI monster-of-the-week with tentacles.