Life review: “Cat-and-mouse action with simple, squelchy thrills”

It may owe a debt to the Alien franchise, but this slick sci-fi thriller pays back with help from its hard-working cast and bursts of head-spinning action

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★★★

Coming just six weeks before the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, Life feels like a pre-emptive move, reminding you of where it all began with the Alien franchise.

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It’s not as enthralling as the 1979 film, but it has its moments and the horror is balanced by composed performances from a cosmopolitan cast that features Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds alongside Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, Brit Ariyon Bakare, Russian Olga Dihovichnaya and Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuA-xqBw4jE?ecver=2

We’re thrown in at the deep end with the crew from the very start when a Mars probe almost knocks their space station out of its orbit over the Earth. Daniel Espinosa (the Swedish director of Easy Money and, more recently, Child 44) makes it an immersive experience, floating at speed through the narrow tunnels of the station as they try to avert a collision and save the precious soil samples on board the probe. Analysing those samples, po-faced biologist Hugh (Bakare) discovers a single-cell life form which, over the course of days, grows at a rapid rate.

Eventually looking something like a slippery Marigold glove flopping around in a petri dish, the creature is able to give Hugh a firm handshake – to the point that he realises this isn’t a friendly hello. He survives the encounter, but there can be no doubt that people are about to die as the creature, within seconds, morphs again into an Alien-type face-hugger with parasitical tendencies. That famous scene of John Hurt suffering fatal indigestion is played in reverse as this little sucker worms its way into (rather than out of) the human body through the mouth.

Initially, there’s something more morbidly amusing than scary about this particular alien, not least because it’s referred to as Calvin, but more because – in its earlier guise – it makes the actors look as though they’re madly trying to shake off a globule of nasty snot. However, the thing keeps evolving until gradually it becomes quite a fearsome sight, with a sneering face and tentacles, winged and translucent, swooshing around in zero gravity like an angel of death, leaving the crew to  reflect on their mortality between bursts of head-spinning action.

Espinosa makes bold choices about the order in which characters are despatched; otherwise he follows a standard, reliable formula. There are yet more nods to Ridley Scott’s seminal work as the alien assailant is tracked on a digital display – a glowing red dot moving across a screen – but Espinosa misses the elegance of execution, unable to generate the same level of tension in these moments of quiet menace. The same could be said for the film as a whole, which can swerve too abruptly between hushed conversation and full-on, scream-filled scuffles.

Hugh observes that this is a uniquely efficient form of life whose cells perform every required function – “all muscle, all brain, all eye” – and that promises a more sophisticated adversary than the one we’re given and which could have made this a more interesting chess game. Instead, it’s plain old cat-and-mouse action with simple, squelchy thrills to carry you through to a turbo-boosted finale.

Gyllenhaal is given a bit of background story to chew on, having done a tour of duty in Syria, but there’s not much else to cling to when it comes to characterisation – of course, the face-hugger is only concerned with having enough flesh to grab a hold of. With a script from the writers of Deadpool, you might expect more wit too, but even Deadpool himself, Reynolds, only manages a few pale wisecracks. The dynamics of the crew are so superficial, they feel easily expendable. Except for the fact that some of them are A-list stars, no single member makes a lasting impression.

Espinosa is at his most inspired with haunting images such as blood that splatters in slow-motion and one of the crew slowly drowning inside a helmet filled with leaking coolant.

The actors do well to convey enough sweaty desperation while hanging on to their dignity, and they make a workable unit to combat the threat – not just of the alien, but of the occasional dips in the movie’s energy. Like the villain here, the film flops around at times, although it does hit its genre marks along the way, and serves as a mouth-watering appetiser for whatever Scott has up his sleeve in the next chapter of his alien story.

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Life is released in cinemas on Friday 24 March