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‘Life’ and death

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Sci-fi horror film familiar, but compelling

One of the difficulties inherent to making a sci-fi movie is the omnipresence of certain tropes. Finding new ways to hit the marks that are part and parcel with science fiction isn’t easy. But creating a good movie without hitting at least some of those marks is even more difficult. Basically, if you’re going to do something we’ve seen before, you need to do it REALLY well.

The new movie “Life” does that. It’s a familiar structure – your standard “trapped in space” narrative – that has been repeated seemingly hundreds of times in the nearly 40 years since Ridley Scott basically perfected it with “Alien.” But it’s well-crafted, doing a nice job of ratcheting up and maintaining the tension. There’s a strong, subdued visual aesthetic and a solid cast. Again – you’ve seen it before, but it’s made well enough that you’re OK with it.

A six-person crew is manning the International Space Station, awaiting the return of a Mars probe that is packed with samples that need to be examined in a safe, quarantined environment. Flight engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds, “Criminal”) and crew doctor David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Nocturnal Animals”) are Americans; biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare, “Rogue One”) and quarantine officer Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson, “The Girl on the Train”) are Brits. Pilot Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada, “Mr. Holmes”) is Japanese, while mission commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya, “House of Others”) is Russian.

This multinational team is tasked with testing the probe’s payload. As they do so, they make a world-changing discovery – life. It’s a single-celled organism that they manage to wake from hibernation through the manipulation of its environment; the discovery is celebrated back on Earth to such an extent that a massive contest for schoolkids is held to name the alien (they wind up naming it Calvin).

This is the very first example of extraterrestrial life. But as the experiments continue, the crew soon realizes that there’s much more to Calvin than they initially guessed. And when a series of accidents line up with a break of quarantine, the members of the crew soon find themselves fighting for their lives against a resilient, intelligent enemy whose motivations and actions – as well as its weaknesses – are a complete mystery to them.

There’s no need to go into much more detail with regards to the narrative; to be honest, the plot isn’t any more complex than your standard slasher movie. It’s a group of people, trapped in isolation, forced to do anything and everything within their power to defeat an enemy with capabilities far beyond their comprehension. Sub “summer camp” for “space station” and “hockey-masked lunatic” for “inexplicable alien entity” and you’ve got more or less the same movie.

That’s not meant to be an insult, by the way. “Alien” was the same deal, the whole “slasher in space” thing. When it’s done right, it works. And for the most part, “Life” does it right (though it does feel like a competently-executed cover of a classic).

Swedish director Daniel Espinosa doesn’t have a huge filmography - his American releases include 2012’s “Safe House” and 2015’s “Child 44” – but he’s got an undeniable eye. The film’s palette is muted without being too dark, allowing the naturally claustrophobic vibe of the setting to do the heavy lifting. And like seemingly every director who comes out of Scandinavia, he also has a deft hand with developing tension. The fear exists in the spaces between the traditionally “scary” moments.

It helps that it is a tight, talented ensemble. This is another strong performance from the perpetually underrated Gyllenhaal; this kind of insular intensity is perfectly suited for his skill set. Ferguson is poised on the brink of stardom; projects like this certainly aren’t going to hurt her case. Dihovichnaya exudes a quiet confidence that suits the character well. Sanada’s subtle strength plays well, as does Bakare’s true-believer enthusiasm. And while I was once again subject to my desire to punch Ryan Reynolds in the face, it was only a little bit. And in my defense, I’m pretty sure that wanting to punch him in the face was a legitimate reaction to the character.

There’s a darkness to “Life” that works really well, a throat-tightening, almost suffocating sensation that evokes that sense of the walls closing in around you. And with the twanged-wire tension of even the quietest scene, that feeling is inescapable. It’s a slow and steady march, one where danger lurks around every corner. It’s not just an alien enemy, but the environment itself; death is trying to push its way in through every window. Every mistake is potentially deadly under the best of circumstances, let alone the worst.

“Life” is scary and bleak and it’s unapologetic about any of it. You’ve seen this movie before, but it’s worth watching again.

[3.5 out of 5]

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