It’s surely on page one of the Space Explorer Handbook that you don’t poke aliens. It’s just a bad way to ingratiate oneself. The crew in Life pay a high cost for ignoring that directive in this inventive sci-fi horror, a single prod risking the entire future of humanity.
They start with such noble intentions. A big show-off opening tracking shot introduces this crew, which includes Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson, bobbing about in space waiting to recover samples from Mars. Among these samples is a single-celled organism, which is coaxed into animation and starts to grow. Hallelujah! We are not alone in the universe! Very quickly they wish they were. After a mishap puts this little blob, innocuously nicknamed Calvin, back into hibernation, one of the crew tries to electrocute it back to life. It wakes up very grumpy and begins trying to kill everyone, quite successfully, growing larger and more dangerous as it feeds.
Life is a breathless charge of a movie. Although he’s constrained by the cramped confines of a space station and an anti-gravity setting that means his cast can only pull rather than run, director Daniel Espinosa keeps the movement constant. As Calvin grows and hides around the ship, the crew are always trying to outpace and outwit him. Shots that mostly stay tight on the actors’ terrified faces (Ferguson is excellent) and the impossibility of the viewer orienting themselves in an always spinning environment keep tension at breaking point.
Though it’s prepared to rush through some of them in order to keep the pace up, there are big, smart ideas at play. It muses on nature vs. nurture (would Calvin have been so vicious if they hadn’t antogonised it?), the value of a single life, and most of all the need for control, which the crew keeps trying to assert on something that breaks every natural law they’ve prepared for. It’s very smart people doing some very dumb things in a desperate bid to survive, and it’s a lot of fun watching them fail.