Movie review: Sci-fi thriller 'Life' poised to become cult classic

Ryan Reynolds

Ryan Reynolds Alex Bailey

Life, which stands alongside Arrival as one of the better sci-fi movies in recent memory, is the latest case study in why we can’t have nice things: Barely anyone has gone to see Daniel Espinosa’s Alien-inflected thriller, effectively dooming us to fewer movies like it and many more Transformers sequels.

An old-school B movie in the sleek, expensive guise of a studio production, Life already seems poised to become a cult classic whose stature grows with time. If you feel like being ahead of the curve, give it a chance before it departs theaters for the final frontier that is home video and/or streaming — it’s a journey well worth taking.

Six spacefarers orbit the Earth aboard the International Space Station at film’s beginning, and they aren’t alone; the crew has just recovered a soil sample from Mars that they’re hoping contains, well, life.

Spoiler: It does. Spoiler: It doesn’t come in peace.

This martian starts out small, on the cellular level, before growing into something resembling a sentient orchid. Back on the blue planet, they give it a name — Calvin — and all is well for a time. We’ve never seen anything like Calvin, which is elegant and revelatory all at once; surely this is the start of some new enlightenment?

If only. An accident in the ISS lab causes the lifeform to go dormant as a kind of defense mechanism. The scientists, doctors, and technicians are puzzled. What caused this to happen, they wonder, and how can they reverse it?

Their answer is human, all too human: Zap it with electricity. Calvin’s eventual reawakening is as rude as they come, resulting in exponential growth that reveals its true Lovecraftian form. Before fully coming of age, the squid-like organism breaks every bone in one poor soul’s hand and causes another to drown inside a space suit. Astronauts are often treated as little more than cannon fodder in movies of this sort, but Espinosa makes his characters’ deaths so visually graphic — and viscerally upsetting — that you want the remaining few to blast Calvin into orbit as badly as they do.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds are the most familiar faces here, though not necessarily the most compelling. In a claustrophobic thriller like this, it’s rarely a question of if the lesser-known actors will be dispatched but rather when; kudos especially to Hiroyuki Sanada (as a tech specialist and father to a newborn) and Olga Dihovichnaya (as the stalwart captain) for keeping us guessing as to their ultimate fates and stealing a few scenes in the process.

The brightest star is ultimately Calvin, however, and anyone familiar with Alien would be unsurprised to hear Ian Holm’s unfeeling company man deem it a “perfect organism.” Frightfully adaptable and ruthlessly efficient, the creature moves through zero gravity like an eel through water and will surely rise to the top of the food chain should it reach earth. You’d be in awe of it if you weren’t so busy being terrified.

Director: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds
Rated: R
Theater: Now playing, area theaters