Film Review: Life, A Solid B-movie With an A-list Cast

Photograph courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Photograph courtesy of Columbia Pictures

A B-movie with a largely A-list cast, the science-fiction monster movie Life probably works best as a place holder until Alien: Covenant comes out in about two months. There’s a rich tradition of films about a crew of space travelers who are caught on a ship with a destructive alien force, and Life fits in rather nicely with other titles, without doing much to surpass or improve upon the formula. There are moments of levity and casual hanging out that are meant to let the audience feel like this is a small, tight-knit family. And in fact, the six-person crew in the movie is meant to be an international crew on the International Space Station, some of whom have been off world for quite a long time, and they do a convincing job of floating around the massive structure like they have been there for months on end.

After retrieving a sample collected from a recent probe on Mars, resident biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) finds evidence of frozen cells, which he manages to regenerate. The sample then begins to multiply in a small, seemingly harmless growth that appears to react to its environment, including a stupid scientist poking it with his finger. As one would expect, each crew member has a specialty, and as things begin to go all to hell, their skill sets become useful in various ways that often result in surviving a little longer. It becomes clear after a while that the ever-growing organism is feeding on oxygen, so it goes around the station sucking up all sources of breathable air, including the bodies of some of the crew members. This is not a film about humans getting taken over by an alien; this is a film about an alien killing anything that needs oxygen to live, and the results are often quite grotesque.

The film also includes such non-North American dignitaries as Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya as the commander, Japanese-born Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine), and Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation), as well as Canada’s own Ryan Reynolds as the alpha male and America’s Jake Gyllenhaal as David Jordan. Director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44, Safe House), working from a screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who together wrote both Deadpool and Zombieland) makes it clear early on that how famous an actor is is not a measure of how long that character will survive in this story, and it’s that uncertainty that gives Life a bit of an edge and uncertainty as to how this deadly game will play out.

Photograph courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Photograph courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Like most films about teams with strict protocols, especially when it comes to possible infections or outbreaks, there are the requisite idiot crew members who let their heart overrule their head, and they open sealed rooms when the shouldn’t, thus insuring that the infestation will have total access to the remaining sources of oxygen. In that respect, Life feels like a somewhat silly work because it attempts to convince us that these wildly smart individuals would make such amateur mistakes. In addition, the squid/starfish look of the alien life form isn’t particularly interesting or original, and to compensate for that by the end of the movie, the filmmakers give it a more traditional monster head that ends up looking more like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors than anything else.

Truth be told, I didn’t hate Life at all. Most of the performances rise above the simplistic and unchallenging script. The tension levels and big scares are delivered effectively, and with minimal nonsense false jump-scare moments. And while the larger version of the alien life form (which the crew name “Calvin”) isn’t especially scary, the smaller versions terrified me for some reason. Thinking about the places it could crawl on your body gave me the chills. So the film isn’t a total wash, but it’s far from necessary viewing. That being said, there are several actors here whose films I would go out of my way to catch any day of the week, especially Ferguson and Gyllenhaal, who do fantastic work here as strong, resilient characters. Life is a mixed bag, for certain, but if you have a craving for horror of science fiction, you could do worse and probably have in recent months.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.