Aw, murderous space station aliens. They grow up so fast!
"Life" is the latest in a trend of hard-edged sci-fi films that emphasize the science part of the equation just as much as the fiction. Like "The Martian," "Passengers" and "Arrival," everything from the story to the effects and dialogue flies in the face of genre cliches.
The setup is straight out of "Alien," with a team of scientists isolated on a space station tangling with an alien threat they're scrambling to understand as their odds of survival increasingly dwindle. A dynamite cast of Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllanhaal, Rebecca Ferguson mesh with unknowns Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya, playing an international research squad who work with the specimen collected from Mars.
What starts off as an adorable, microscopic little pet starts growing appendages and expanding in size. The development divides the crew, some who encourages the little guy's growth and curiosity through tests, hoping it could solve mysteries about stem cell development and the origin of life. Others just want to smash it dead or send it flying out an airlock. The conflict leads to a domino effect of well-intended choices that turn south, leaving openings for the alien to wreak havoc.
Director Daniel Espinosa, who also directed Reynolds in "Safe House" five years ago, is adept at showing off the actor's easygoing, trash-talking vibe to take the edge off grim material.
And this thing grows relentlessly brutal. Espinosa keeps his storytelling spare and tight, and the dramatic music swells to a minimum, preferring to let his actors relate the horror via facial expressions and physical reactions. As the astronauts squirm in claustrophobic panic, you feel trapped right there with them.
The alien remains largely unseen, appearing as tracking dots and insinuated sounds. When he gets his close-ups, they pay off with jarring impact.
This could be a typical RUNAWAYDIEALIENDIEAAARGH type of horror experience, but Espinosa steers away from that skid by keeping a tantalizingly detached scientific air to the material.
The crew members are trained professionals who debate and enact one protocol and firewall after another as the situation devolves. The solemn sense of duty to a higher purpose carried out by the astronauts makes their grace under pressure and commitment to one another's survival all the more endearing.
That said, "Life" at its core is sci-fi horror. This is a movie that sets out to traumatize, frighten and trouble you to the point that you would rather get a root canal than see it again. That just means Espinosa, his cast and especially the alien have done their job.
RATING: 3.5 stars out of 4.