Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson headline the 2017 science fiction horror film Life, but they constitute half of an ensemble cast completed by Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and OlgaDihovichnaya, all of whom shine equally in the film. If anything, Gyllenhaal’s intentionally quiet presence in scenes is conspicuous because I expected him to have a larger role. There is no single star in this movie, but the film is the better for it.

Of course there is a seventh character, the martian life form which school children of Earth named Calvin. There are a lot of parallels between Life and Alien, but how could there not be? Alien literallyinvented the “locked in space threatened by an alien” genre. Life struck me as a spin on the concepts in Alien while still remaining its own animal; as with that classic film, our alien creature is unique and terrifying in an animalistic hunter-predator fashion.

One of the notable things about Life is that the characters do not fall prey to the alien because they are under-prepared. Unlike every other instance of this genre that I can think of – from Alien itself all the way back to the original The Thing from Another World – the characters were never meant nor prepared to face the utterly alien. The crew of the near-future International Space Station featured in Life are not so ill-prepared. The film begins with the capture of a probe returned from Mars. Its purpose: to bring back a sample of martian soil that should contain indigenous life. The crew has spent months preparing the ISS to receive and study this cargo, because the safest place to isolate and investigate an alien life form is anywhere that isn’t in Earth’s atmosphere. The probe itself was damaged on the
voyage from Mars, necessitating a dangerous robotic-arm capture as the opening scene, dropping us into some first-rate astronaut action right off the bat before slowing the story down for a protracted reverence for the confirmation of life outside our fragile blue home.

If Life has a single unifying theme it is fatherhood. The successful resuscitation of a single celled martian creature by mission biologist Hugh Derry (Bakare) sparks one of many frequent jokes from engineerRoy Adams (Reynolds) that Hugh is now a father, remarking that
“there’s going to be one hell of a custody battle for this one.” Theconcept of fatherhood frequently comes up after that, with charactersreferring to their fathers and even one of the male characterswitnessing the birth of his child via video call, as if to furthe slap you in the face with the idea that this film is about fatherhood. Metaphor runs deeper, from the “spanking” to life of Calvin via electrical shock, to a disturbing sequence that is best described as an attempt to nurse.

There is surface complexity and metaphor throughout this film, just as there is with Alien with its complex symbolism concerning sexualassault, which is why I feel Life shares so much in common with that classic. But just as with Alien, the viewer is free to disregard all
symbolism and metaphor to instead watch an intelligent and terrifying monster movie.

The crew can not be faulted for being unprepared to confront the alien, because Calvin is far more virulent and intelligent than there was any right to expect him to be. Essentially two wrongs make a horrible situation and the terror shifts from philosophical, to
physical, to apocalyptic, as the crew finds themselves in a pitched battle to prevent Calvin from reaching Earth after breaking quarantine.

The decision to keep the film in a zero-gravity setting is commendable, and I can’t fault Life for the handful of times that gravity seems conveniently present. This film does its best to stay one step ahead of you, sometimes succeeding but often falling just shy of the mark. As much as I adored this movie, in the end it had the feel of a high budget made-for-TV movie, and for that aftertaste it is unable to attain the status of an epic.

4 out of 5 stars

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