Daniel Espinosa’s Science-Fiction monster mash LIFE was both born of, and a victim of its greatest influence; Ridley Scott’s Alien.
When it was released in March, it drifted by like a final reel escape pod, sadly unnoticed by the ticket buying public. You see, at the time anticipation for another science-fiction alien themed horror was at fever pitch, with everyone screaming loud enough to be heard in space about the forthcoming Alien: Covenant, which promised a return to the haunted house frightfest of the original.
Now the noise has subsided, and the franchise to which LIFE is indebted has struggled to deliver on the promise of a stripped back return-to-form, it’s time to suit up and revisit Calvin the Martian, and the crew of the ill-fated space station, to take a look at why LIFE is worth living all over again.
The set-up is refreshingly simple, with archetypes who are instantly recognisable. LIFE hits the ground running, with things going wrong relatively quickly. The pontification can be left to the likes of Interstellar and Prometheus, because this is a lean, stalk-n-slash gut-punch movie that succeeds thanks to its B-Movie brevity.
Necessary to ensure that we care about those being picked off one-by-one, it also helps that a stellar cast were recruited for this doomed mission. Ryan Reynolds is effortlessly likeable, without ever having to establish backstory, Jake Gyllenhaal always plays a character with whom you’re never completely comfortable, which always helps when elements of mistrust are woven into the script, and Rebecca Ferguson is given voiceover duties and an air of controlled calm that marks her out as odds-on favourite for survival.
Half of the enjoyment taken from slasher films, whether they’re in space or around Camp Crystal lake, is rooting for the potential victims, and although LIFE never scratches that far beneath the surface of its crew, they’re all clearly defined personalities who act accordingly; the scientist, the wisecracker, the introvert, the family man, the duplicitous company stooge. Put it this way, when they poke a creature, it’s done for scientific reasons, rather than stupidity.
As for said creature, LIFE centres around a Martian who undoes all of the good work Matt Damon did for that name, an organism stimulated into life and christened Calvin. He has a lot of iconic beings to go up against in the Top Trumps of Movie Aliens edition – Alien’s xenomorph, Sil from Species, Predator from, erm, Predator – and during the first half of the film in particular, gets to inflict some particularly inventive body-horror deaths upon the crew.
Introduced as a parasitic grub, the kind found in the same petri dish as the Wrath of Khan ear bug, Calvin’s modus operandi involves some horrific biological break-ins, latching onto his or hers victim and then trying to find a way into their body. Part balletic jellyfish, part playful mollusc, the way in which he kills one of the crew members sight unseen, the audience relying largely on the actor’s facial expressions and some stylish anti-gravity blood expulsion, is more terrifying than any act of on-screen excessive violence.
As the film evolves, so does Calvin, and whilst his final form is more Del Toro style beast bug, losing some of the fear factor he’d induced whilst killer squid, there’s still something slightly more fiendish about his actions than your standard corridor stalking monster.
While we’re on the subject of corridors, the confines of the spaceship could have led to a reliance on derivative set-pieces, but Espinosa at least tries to make the game of cat-and-mouse a slightly different one to your usual “it’s in the air ducts” action. A spin on this is a wonderful sequence in which the smart-arse alien is attempting to get back inside the space station by using the exhaust pipes, with the tension racked up simply by showing the read-out dials react to Calvin’s presence in the tunnels. Comparisons with Alien are unavoidable, but seeing that bleeping motion sensor was always more scary than the beast itself, and scenes such as this work on the same level.
Where LIFE attempts to be out-and-out ambitious is how it bookends the central narrative. Opening with a Tim Peake style Q&A with a group of school kids gives the film a grounded reality and adds weight to the threat of Calvin being able to reach Earth as things go south. So often Sci-Fi films reference Earth as a far off destination, or set the events so far into the future that it’s unrecognisable to the audience, but here you are geographically rooted in the now, orbiting above the planet, so the threat feels more real.
This also makes what they choose to do with the ending that much more effective. You’ll find no spoilers here, and you may see it coming as the tense finale plays out, but such cold nihilistic punctuation leaves a mark similar to the one that Calvin’s grip would put on you should you go poking about in space.
Who says you only get one shot at LIFE?
Released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on July 31st 2017 on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital Download.