Life takes place on the International Space Station, and begins with the station’s crew of six successfully recovering a probe containing soil samples from Mars. A couple of days later, they manage to reanimate a single-celled organism found among the samples. This organism, later dubbed “Calvin” by the people of Earth, is unlike anything the team has seen before, and within a few weeks it has grown at a remarkable pace. But this little experiment goes south rather quickly, with Calvin proving to be much more dangerous than the team anticipated.The film’s most impressive scene is its first: a technically dazzling faux-single take that weaves through the narrow, zero-G corridors of the International Space Station, checking in on the various characters as they deal with the challenge of retrieving a damaged probe hurtling through space. It recalls some of the best sequences of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, but this isn’t really the norm for the film. The more accurate cultural touchpoints would be The Thing or Alien: films wherein a small group of people is trapped in a small space with something lethal. The film never quite reaches the heights of its inspirations, but it is reasonably effective for what it is.Here’s what the film does right: it gets off to a quick start, sprinting through exposition and getting right to the danger. The film pulls a mean trick early on that really raises the tension, playing on audience expectations on how this kind of movie plays out. It then goes on to construct a technically sound exercise in horror, with the crew suffering under the constant threat of a superior foe, never quite sure when it’s going to pop up, and not really knowing how to deal with it. Every time Calvin pops up, it really does seem like a genuine threat to the continued survival of these humans.But the film doesn’t do enough to endear these characters to us. Too much of the plot is driven by these characters, who are aware of the danger and the consequences of their actions, doing things that endanger themselves and others. One could easily chalk it up to human frailty, but none of it seems particularly rooted in how the characters are written. And by the end, the tension kind of fades away, as these characters don’t seem to have any real recourse for dealing with the threat. Bits that seem to have been intended to be a surprise don’t come off as such. It’s all just part of the film’s dim view of its own characters.But there’s a lot to like in how the film presents itself. Though the film doesn’t really take full advantage of its unique setting, it does manage to make it feel pretty real through smart lensing and terrific sound design. Calvin, as a CGI effect, is unlikely to evoke the same visceral feelings as the Xenomorph or the Thing, but it is nicely designed and ably realized. Jake Gyllenhaal brings some soulfulness to his character, and ably handles the film’s rare attempts at greater depth. This isn’t the best showcase for acting, since the characters are pretty thin when all is said and done. But this small cast generally makes good out of what they’re given.Life isn’t always as smart, ambitious or interesting as it really ought to be, but it still manages to be fairly effective. There is somewhat of a sense of wasted potential here, of the film not quite exploiting every resource that it’s given. This is, of course, a matter of comparison, since the films that clearly inspired this movie seemed to do so much more with a lot less. Taken on its own, the film is fine, if a little mechanical. If nothing else, strong acting and good production values make this film an easy watch.
LIFE OPENS IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE ON MARCH 24.