Movies about an alien attacking the crew of a spaceship in a close encounters of a deadly kind are not that original. This kind of galactic battle has been used through the years with “Alien” setting the standard for the life lost in space story.
Such a familiarity to this basic premise puts extra pressure on filmmakers to find a way to give a story enough originality to entertain and differ when comparisons begin. That’s what the team behind “Life” has done.
“Life” is entertaining enough to show that even in a weightless world there can be a heavy gravity to the story. Although familiar in concept, “Life” has strong performances, a willingness to take chances, a beautifully designed set and plenty of tension. The fate of the crew and mission is a series of smart direction changes that continue to the very end.
Members of the International Space Station are waiting for a probe to return from Mars carrying samples from the planet. Research is to be done in the massive spaceship just in case the samples prove to include a threat to mankind. The decision proves prudent: Discovered in the soil is the first proof of life outside Earth in the form of a single-cell creature.
Joy turns to terror as the Martian – named Calvin through a school sponsored contest – starts to grow. It eventually becomes large enough to threaten the six members of the crew.
The movie begins moving along familiar lines as crew and creature battle. Director Daniel Espinosa – along with writers Rhett Reese and Paul Werrick – disrupt the predictable with story twists and gives new life to moments that are reflective of other films through solid acting by the six stars – Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya and Ariyon Bakare.
Gyllenhaal and Ferguson are particularly compelling playing crew members with opposite views of space. Gyllenhaal’s character has elected to stay on the facility for a record number of days because he has no desire to return to the chaos of the planet’s surface. Ferguson’s role is to proved the Spock-like logical member of the team who can make the hard choices to insure the chaotic world below stays safe.
Reynolds is the weak link, with his performance as the snarky, fast-talking crewman is like so many other roles he’s played.
Performances weak and strong are played out on a very believable set that gives the movie more of a realistic space going feel than a film like “Passengers.” The confined size of the space station helps build the tension that the creature could be hidden around every turn. Setting the film in the space station gives the film a grounded connection that was missing from any of the “Alien” movies.
There are no flaws in any of the art design from small details like floating space debris in the space station to a fresh look for the creature. The design of the Martian comes across more based in scientific fact than the product of a special effects artist’s mind. Instead of the traditional bipedalism concept, Calvin has a more marine shape made up of muscle and brain.
All of this makes “Life” original enough to make it standout in a familiar universe.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Rated R (crude humor, graphic nudity, language, violence, drug use)
Opens: Friday, March 24