No, not a discourse upon the meaning of existence, but Swedish director Daniel Espinosa's new sci-fi thriller. I saw it the day before BOM's quaintly-named “ex”-tropical cyclone Debbie hit Brisbane: ex? Ex? It had howling gales, flooding rains, suburbs inundated, people drowned … Ex-cyclone? I say, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck - well, you get my drift.
But I digress.
Now, the topic of alien life form meets humans has been a staple of Hollywood sci-fi films more often than you and I have had hot dinners. Occasionally, the alien is friendly: think "ET", think the more recent "Arrival". Far more often, the alien is deadly hostile: think of the "Alien" series of films, "The Thing", and many others. "Life" definitely falls into the latter category.
A small party of astronaut-scientists on the International Space Station receives samples from the surface of Mars, via a robotic probe. On analysis, a sample proves to have a single-cell life form. Ring the bells and whistles! A life form from beyond Earth! Excitedly, the scientists try to cultivate this single cell. It starts to wriggle. And multiply. And grow.
And grow. It is intelligent. It is mean and ornery. It likes flesh. Human flesh. Especially astronauts. It gets loose and starts to hunt the astronauts down, one by one. Not only are they in a desperate struggle to save their own lives, they are in a desperate struggle to stop the life form (which has been named "Calvin") from reaching Earth.
From a screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the story sounds merely like a cross between Ridley Scott's "Alien" from 1979 and Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" from 2013. In lesser hands than Daniel Espinosa's, this might have been so. But Espinosa is a proven master of the action thriller. Remember his movies "Safe House" and "Child 44"? Both exciting, edge-of-your-seat films. In "Life", Espinosa is helped by great special effects, an exciting music score, a taut, effective script, good performances from his players – and a neat, devastating twist at the end of the film that you probably won't see coming.
The only "name" actors in this movie are Jake Gyllenhaal as David Jordan, the senior medical officer on board the space station, Rebecca Ferguson as Miranda North, the quarantine officer, and Ryan Reynolds as Rory Adams, space pilot. Katerina Golovkina, the space station commander, is played by Olga Dihovichnaya; alone among the astronauts she is privy to a doomsday plan by her superiors on Earth to prevent and avoid the exact disaster unfolding aboard the ISS. But will it work? Will the rampaging Calvin – who looks like a cross between a jellyfish and an octopus – allow them enough time? Will anyone even survive to get back to Earth? And can they keep Calvin from hitching a ride with them? All these questions mount up with increasing drama and tension until the stunning conclusion.
I know this theme has been done before, many times, but I really enjoyed this movie. I didn't pick the surprise ending, and I was on the edge of my seat virtually all the way through. Espinosa is a good director who knows how to crank up the thrills and terror. His actors give him excellent support. I especially liked Dihovichnaya as the commander with the awful secret, but in truth, all the actors in this film are good. The settings in outer space are realistic, indeed, quite beautiful. Calvin is suitably terrifying.
My only substantial nit-picking criticism: in this movie, destruction and disintegration in space are terribly noisy. In reality, you wouldn't hear a thing. Not outside the ISS, anyway.
But this is a very minor criticism. We must remember we are dealing with a piece of Hollywood entertainment, where drama and effect are the name of the game, including terrifying sound effects. Overall, the whole package, I thought, was really very good. Even my female companion, who is not used to sci-fi films, liked it.
And it's short! Only about one hour and three quarters. Just the right length for a cracking good yarn.
My star rating (out of five): * * * *