Review

'Alien' haunts outer space thriller 'Life'

Say hello to Calvin. Or maybe not.

Calvin is the resident alien on space station Plymouth Rock and really, he would as soon suck the life out of you as look at you.

Calvin comes from Mars, if you must know, but in truth his talents for havoc and devastation were wasted on the cold, dead Red Planet he called home.

Calvin is the center of interest in the science fiction thriller "Life," the creature the poster refers to when it insists "We Were Better Off Alone," a sentiment no one seeing this outer space exercise will argue with.

As directed by Daniel Espinosa and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds, "Life" is efficiently constructed to unsettle audiences. It demonstrates both the pleasures and the limitations of doing a skillful job with familiar genre material.

On the positive side, Swedish director Espinosa is something of a genre specialist with a real sense of how stories should unfold on screen. His thriller "Snabba Cash (Easy Money)" was the No. 1 film in Sweden the year it came out. He followed it up with the effective "Safe House" starring Denzel Washington and Reynolds.

And the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the duo behind "Deadpool," has more going for it than a taste of the pair's celebrated glib banter. A genuine effort has been made to add a human dimension to the six members of the Plymouth Rock's crew (the dialogue references "Goodnight Moon" as well as "Re-Animator"), to create convincing individuals rather than space opera constructs.

Not surprisingly, having capable actors helps this endeavor. Gyllenhaal, especially good as space station veteran David Jordan, has a gift for bringing conviction to everything he does.

Reynolds, his hair grayed around the temples, is also strong as spacewalking expert Rory Adams, and Ferguson, who was memorable in the last "Mission: Impossible," is his equal as Miranda North, on loan from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure that nothing threatening to Earth happens onboard.

As if.

The difficulty with all this is that the script's core idea of a malignant presence on the loose in a spaceship is inevitably heavily influenced by 1979's Dan O'Bannon/Ridley Scott "Alien," which means that the plot ends up more standard than inventive. "Life" has its share of twists and scary moments, but most of them can be seen coming.

Still, it is undeniably satisfying to be in the hands of a persuasive director who, along with editors Frances Parker and Mary Jo Markey, knows how to slowly ratchet up the tension to a properly unnerving level.

Perhaps surprisingly, "Life" is especially adept in its opening sequences, when we meet not only Jordan, Adams and North but their crewmates on this mission to search for life forms on Mars.

All well-acted, this trio includes investigating scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), flight engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada) and the capable Russian commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichanaya).

The space station they all inhabit has been beautifully created by production designer Nigel Phelps and supervising art director Marc Homes, and scenes of the crew gliding through it a la "Gravity" are photographed with élan by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

It's a wonderful setting for a meal we've tasted before:

After samples from Mars are brought onboard via an unmanned capsule that actually visited the planet, everyone is in an upbeat, even jaunty mood, saying things like, "I have a good feeling about this" that tempt fate in a major way.

The crew is even more excited when a single living microscopic cell is discovered in the samples. But when they toast "the first incontrovertible proof of life beyond Earth" they don't realize they are celebrating their own potential demise.

When this new life, named Calvin by school kids back on Earth, starts to grow at an unnerving rate, everyone onboard should be alarmed. But "Life" is one of those films where no one on screen has seen the same movies as those of us in the audience.

Once Calvin matures into a grotesque, octopus-like creature whose malevolent intentions are unmistakable, "Life" becomes the inevitable cat and mouse game between the thing and all-too-human individuals prone to altruistic moves that leave them vulnerable.

An ad for space travel this is definitely not.

-----------

‘Life’

MPAA rating: R, for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror.

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Playing: In general release.

 

 

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
77°