Most of the people interested in seeing Life, the astronaut thriller out on March 24, probably have certain expectations based on the movie’s familiar premise: human beings encounter extraterrestrial organism, terrifying things ensue, just as in Alien, Predator and other classics. But while that most basic plotline does describe what happens—Life is the smartest, sharpest version of man vs. ET to come along in a long while.
Life happens almost entirely on the International Space Station, opening with a crew of specialists from Japan, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States preparing to receive a sample of a microscopic lifeform unearthed on Mars. One of the best plot beats comes early on in director Daniel Espinosa’s film, when a little girl from a school that won a contest names the just-discovered critter “Calvin.” That moment happens on a stage in Times Square, framing this discovery as a watershed moment in human history that’s celebrated the whole world over.
As the days stretch on aboard the ISS , Calvin evolves rapidly into a form that described as “all brain, all muscle, all eye.” That evolution stalls when an accident vents the atmosphere of the test chamber, sending Calvin into a dormant state. When a scientist tries to stimulate Calvin back into activity, the lethal nature of the creature’s true capabilities suddenly become apparent.
The core question that audiences tend to have when engaging with first-encounter science-fiction is generally, “Why are these ultra-smart/tough/competent people making stupid decisions?” The characters in Life never feel like they’re being dunderheads, though, because their situational and psychological motivations are sketched out so well that the actions feel very believable. Take, for example, the experiments and interactions that prod Calvin’s evolution into a threat; they’re part of a scientist’s duty in a situation where an important discovery is made.
When it comes to the science on display and the conceptualization of the characters, Life feels refreshingly grounded. Fear, pride, and shame are the primary colors here, with almost none of the paramilitary bravado seen in Life’s thematic forebears. Flight engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is creeped out by Calvin while scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) lusts to know more about it. Meanwhile, Miranda North from the Centers for Disease Control is a hard-ass about making Calvin is properly contained and medical officer David Gordon (Jake Gyllehaal) loves life on the International Space Station much more than on Earth. The work that goes into establishing a real sense of camaraderie and conflict amongst the crew pays off double in Life. When people die in this movie, there’s an important mix of both spectacle and sacrifice.
The ISS created by Espinosa and the special effects teams feels both expansive and claustrophobic, and the innovative camerawork in Life really sells the premise that it’s unfolding in a zero-G environment. Watching the actors glide, float and pull themselves along in scenes spin around on a 360-degree axis makes the drama seem all the more otherworldly.
That said, Life doesn’t happen in a far-off star system or on another planet. This is local horror, pulled from Earth’s neighbor. Beautiful views of mankind’s home are frequently shown in Life but, after things turn tense, you can’t ever enjoy the sight of the big, blue marble. Part of the cleverness that makes Life a smart, atmospheric achievement comes from evoking the wonder and potential danger of space exploration in a moment when humanity feels like on the brink of turning on itself. We might be our own worst enemies right now but Life reminds us that there’s probably something even worse out amongst the stars if that ever stops being the case.