Aerospace engineer Edward Murphy Jr. said in the 1950s, “If anything can go wrong it will.” He probably thought he was just being clever. He likely did not expect that, more than half a century later, that adage, now named Murphy’s Law in the engineer’s honor, would become a cliché spouted regularly by social media users, technicians, and especially disaster filmmakers. It can be a tedious notion, especially when the person espousing Murphy’s words doesn’t bring them to their horrific, logical conclusion. Life director Daniel Espinosa has no qualms about chasing that axiom all the way to the bitter end.
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Life’s setup is pretty simple. Espinosa follows a crew aboard the International Space Station sometime in the near future as they encounter the first “incontrovertible proof” of alien life outside the planet Earth. It goes poorly for the humans.
Espinosa slyly introduces the audience to the crew in the middle of a crisis. A probe that had been sent to bring back samples of potential life from Mars has been damaged and no longer can be remotely controlled. It must be grabbed manually by a mechanical arm aboard the ISS by the crew’s resident daredevil, Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), before it crashes into the space station. In a tense sequence, Espinosa and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey weightlessly push the camera through the tight hallways and observation decks of the ISS while the crew members nervously discuss strategies on the fly. Should Rory use the mechanical arm to “punch” the probe away and avoid a collision or should he try to catch it? If he directs it into deep space, they may never get another chance to learn about the living cargo aboard the probe. By ratcheting up the tension so high so early and diffusing it with Rory’s triumph (he uses the probe to catch the arm and the probe indeed has frozen alien life aboard it), Espinosa suggests that these scientists and astronauts are capable of handling any dangerous situation that arises. Even though they know things can go wrong, per Murphy’s Law, they seem able to handle the curveballs fate throws their way.
But nope, things can spiral out of even their control, regardless of how many firewalls and fail safes safety chief Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) cooks up.
Every early moment spent with the single-cell organism, which they name Calvin, fills these researchers with glee. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), a paraplegic who is finally able to move like other people thanks to zero gravity, grows drunk on this sensory overload. He can “walk” like the other astronauts and every moment is a thrilling discovery as the translucent organism grows exponentially with each passing day. That growth should be alarming, but Hugh and the other crew members take it to be cute or fascinating, without much worry creeping into their minds because it’s all so exciting -- even the morose David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), soon to hold the record as the longest-tenured astronaut in space, finds this enthralling. Soon, thanks to careless mistakes in shutting down Hugh’s research station, Calvin becomes less cute and fascinating, unless one finds death at the hands of a gooey phlegm Martian adorable and engaging.
The tonal shift from beaming optimism (look at the wonders of science!) to gruesome horror (it’s slowly eating my bone marrow while I’m still alive, briefly!) is not as radical or jarring as one might expect. Espinosa and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick plant enough seeds in the early going to prepare viewers for the graphic death to come. There are lines about how these scientists should be aware that there is no way for them to conduct controlled experiments with Calvin and the camera holds ominously long enough on the chewed-gum body of Calvin to signal that these scientists may not be long for this world.
Where Life drags ever so slightly is in its middle section, which borrows extensively from the structure of Ridley Scott’s original Alien. Because this new film also has the same essential premise as Alien (a crew of space explorers encounters a dangerous, growing alien lifeform that systematically destroys them) it can feel overly indebted to that earlier, superior creature feature -- indeed, Alien is the gold standard for horror and science fiction. Life twists Alien’s kills just enough to make them distinctive enough (Alien’s face-hugging Xenomorph becomes Life’s jumping-down-the-throat-to-feast-on-an-astronaut’s-innards goop monster and so on), but very little about Calvin’s killing spree feels entirely fresh -- it’s more of an evolution than a paradigm shift. Also, the characters can feel a little mechanical. This character’s wife just had a baby, so we’re supposed to feel a connection to him, and that character saw bad things happen in a war zone, so we’re meant to have empathy. These are mostly tremendous actors saying these lines and embodying these characters, but the movie is not extremely interested in what makes them tick outside of providing a few sketch-like attributes so it can get back to killing them.
And that’s fine because Life brings down the house with its ending. It’s a twisty, tumbly, terrifying climax that incorporates these characters’ core attributes, which were cleverly set up earlier by Reese and Wernick’s script. It plays on the PTSD-induced martyr complex of one crew member and the petrified second- and third-guessing of someone whose entire professional life is based on having all the answers in moments of danger. Its shocking conclusion would make Rod Serling (of The Twilight Zone fame) proud.
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Writers: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Available in theaters now