Sci-fi horrors fans can feast on 'Life' until the banquet comes with return of 'Alien'

Sci-fi horrors fans can feast on 'Life' until the banquet comes with return of 'Alien'

Bad things can happen in deep space. We know this because films like “Alien” and the many other sci-fi horror films it inspired have engineered all kinds of extraterrestrial creatures to prey on mankind. “Life” succeeds better than about 90 percent of those due to its relentless claustrophobia and a twist ending that director Daniel Espinosa insisted on before he agreed to make the movie.

The premise centers around an unmanned probe sent to Mars to pluck soil samples for a crew on the International Space Station to test for signs of life. After a near miss in connecting with the probe, exobiologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) manages to grow the first extraterrestrial life in a petri dish in the controlled lab. Given the name Calvin, the curious life form grows at an alarming rate until it manages to aggressively attack Derry, and through a series of mistakes made by the crew, escape the confines of the lab and disappear into the bowels of the station.

It’s all downhill from there as Calvin, who thrives on the blood of its prey, begins picking off the crew members as they valiantly try to contain it. The so-called fire walls established by Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) are exhausted one by one until the remaining crew begin to realize they must track down the fast-growing creature and kill it or they cannot return to earth without risking all mankind. In short, they won’t be returning to earth at all.

The ISS setting employs seamless CGI work to simulate the zero gravity setting, and it also gives the movie its claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s truly an international endeavor with two Americans, Jake Gyllenhaal as David Jordan, a space weary astronaut who prefers space to earth, and engineer Rory Adams, played by Ryan Reynolds. Miranda and Hugh hail from England, and the other two astronauts, played by Olga Dihovichnaya and Hiroyuki Sandana, are from Russia and Japan.

While there is little time for backstory on any of the characters save for Gyllenhaal’s, the writers of this — Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick — have crafted a tense, smart thriller that is as creepy as it is gruesome. Most of this is kept to a minimum, but Calvin’s ability to survive and strengthen relies on its intuitiveness, which Derry had noted from its inception. Its quasi-starfish features allow it to move quickly and its slimy surface ratchets the “icky” factor off the charts. No character is offed in quite the same way, which provides greater tension — as if there wasn’t enough already.

And then we come to the end — or the one we think we know is coming. Reese and Wernick apparently decided to play against conventional tropes where gender can determine who lives and who dies. It’s shocking and unexpected, and it’s all leading to a sequel the writers have already discussed in promotional interviews. It would be interesting to see how Calvin eventually evolves in a different environment and gains the ability to replicate.

For some good sci-fi chills and thrills, I thought I was going to have to wait until Ridley’s Scott’s “Alien: Covenant,” coming out in mid-May, but “Life” will satisfy until then. Too bad the crew of the ISS has to find out the hard way: Don’t mess with Martian nature.

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