Updated: 16th December 2017

Life review Jake Gyllenhaal hits the retro rockets for sub-Alien space horror

Gyllenhall and Ryan Reynolds play members of a scientific team investigation material from Mars that turns out to contain a hostile life-form

Like the anonymous phone call in a horror film that turns out to be coming from inside the house, Life is a sci-fi thriller about a contamination crisis: a crisis that goes on pretty much uninterruptedly for around an hour and three quarters. Its a serviceable, watchable, determinedly unoriginal film starring Jake Gyllenhaal about a parasite-predator in a spaceship, a creature which can only survive by feeding off a pre-existing host. The expressions on the spacepersons faces here may give a guide to the feelings of Ridley Scott and everyone involved with the 1979 classic Alien when they see it. Life is indebted to Alien, to say the least, although its final, perfunctory hint of a conspiracy doesnt approach Aliens powerful satirical pessimism.

Actually, Lifes screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (known for box-office smash Deadpool) seem also to have been as impressed as everyone else by Alfonso Cuarns sci-fi drama Gravity, with their scenes of lone astronauts wobbling about outside the spaceship which is always liable to get smashed to low-tech smithereens. At the last moment, Reese and Wernick and director Daniel Espinosa hit their retro-rockets for a neat little 180-degree twist, thankfully reversing the prevailing mood of sucrose fatalism. It has the audience leaving the cinema with ironic grins on their faces.

Life is about a liaison spacecraft which at some time in the future is hovering outside Earths atmosphere, acting as both floating science lab and halfway house. An automated craft is about to arrive from Mars after a long flight, freighted with red rock and dust. The crew must effectively catch this craft, like a mailbag chucked from a speeding train, decant its contents and analyse them in secure conditions which mean that any possible bacteria contained in this material dont infect anyone down on earth. But to their astonishment and excitement, the crew find that within the dust is what looks like a tiny, living monocellular organism. They have given a big fat yes to David Bowies immortal question.

Ryan
Loyal … Ryan Reynolds in Life. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

A schoolkid back on the home planet wins a competition to name this entity and her choice of Calvin might annoy the Catholic church until it becomes clear what kind of a creature Calvin is. Its growing at an alarming rate in its petri dish, like a little two-armed jellyfish the size of a nickel. Then it grabs the little spatula with which one of the scientists is prodding it, with surprising strength and hostility. And it keeps on growing.

The crew itself is international and diverse: their missions sponsors are described as American, Russian and Chinese although that might just be a description of the films target market territories. Gyllenhaal is the quiet, introspective Dr David Jordan, Ryan Reynolds plays hot-tempered and fiercely loyal crew member Roy Adams, who is a good friend to the chief scientist Dr Hugh Derry, played by Ariyon Bakare. Rebecca Ferguson plays the supervising medic Dr Miranda North and Olga Dihovnichnaya is another scientist, Katarina Golovkin.

As Calvin gets bigger and bigger and more and more resourceful, the film seems always to be echoing to the sound of doors and pods and hatches being clanged shut, just in time, as Calvin lands on them with an almighty squelch or too late, and Calvin slithers through. Perhaps its appropriate for a country obsessed with walls and boundaries. The metaphorical potential is cutely signalled early on when Rory says that the teams proposal to cultivate an organism from the tiny life-form is some Reanimator shit a movie reference Dr North dismisses as irritatingly obscure, although the Frankensteinian-hubris parallel isnt wholly out of line. Later, Adams is seen with a copy of Freuds Interpretation of Dreams, and it could be that in dreams, or in waking life, the idea of a yucky, tiny little beastie getting bigger and bigger signals all kinds of fear: fear of sex, fear of invasion, fear of penetration. However, the legendary jump-scare for John Hurt at the beginning of Alien did all that much more effectively.

The crews memories of the kids bedtime book Goodnight Moon are supposed to lend a little gentleness and humanity to the film, and a bit of a narrative breather, but this third-act conceit only succeeds in replacing a creeping sense of tiredness with sentimentality. Much better is the jeopardy and tension of the movies final sequence. He leaves it very late, but Espinosa brings his film back to life.

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