Friday 28 July 2017

Cute Calvin turns nasty in alien tale

This chilling space opera lacks originality but it will give you the creeps
Ships in the night: Jake Gyllenhaal deals with a troublesome visitor in Life
Ships in the night: Jake Gyllenhaal deals with a troublesome visitor in Life

Paul Whitington

From the moment the excited crew of an International Space Station begins examining a Martian probe sample containing potential signs of extraterrestrial life, there's not much doubt about what will happen next. Blood will be spilt, and victims will scream (though as we know there's not much point, because in space no one can hear you) as an innocuous single-cell organism balloons into something much more threatening.

We know all this from the word go because Life is not a very original film. In fact it's shamelessly, sometimes brazenly derivative, of Ridley Scott's Alien mostly, but also of more recent space operas like Gravity. That said, it's perfectly watchable and not without a sense of humour, though the jokes are sadly lacking late on. Decent cast too, led by Jake Gyllenhaal's wily space station veteran who's been up there so long he's not that keen on coming down.

The space station has been orbiting the Earth for decades studying data sent back from deep space and neighbouring planets when its dwellers land their most exciting delivery yet. In a well-managed opening sequence, crew member Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds) displays great courage by donning a space suit and going outside the ship on a line to make sure a module plummeting through space on its way back from Mars is safely intercepted.

High fives all round then, and even more so when they discover a tiny micro-organism inside. It doesn't seem terribly alive to begin with, but when science officer Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) treats it lovingly with oxygen and glucose, the tiny creature fizzles to life. The discovery is big news back on Earth, where a class of American elementary school children christen the diminutive alien Calvin. A cute name, but a little too cute - considering what's going to happen next.

While Hugh watches it grow in an isolation chamber, he prods and tends it using a pair of heavy latex gloves. As anyone who's ever seen a horror film will know, that's a terrible idea, and one day the growing creature extends what looks like the hand of friendship before grabbing Hugh's fingers and crushing them. Pretty soon it's out of its cage and into the air vents, and the crew faces an ongoing battle to stop the ever-expanding predator from overwhelming them.

If that scenario sounds vaguely familiar, you may have come across Alien at some point or other in your life. A scene where Reynolds tries to kill the creature as it scuttles around like a cornered rat is purest Ridley Scott, and the subsequent hunt even involves low-lighting, a flashing sensor beacon and the constant opening and closing of isolation doors. The actual creature is more elegant-looking than HR Giger's bell-headed extraterrestrial, but just as deadly if it gets close to you, and director Daniel Espinosa executes some amusing bits of business as the thing is successfully expelled from the ship before worming its way back in again.

I'm not the world's leading expert on biology or cosmology or anything, but some of the science in this film strikes me as convenient to the point of spuriousness. The creature's life cycle made no sense to me whatsoever, and its dietary requirements remained shrouded in mystery. Its vicious attacks in a zero gravity environment do result in some spectacularly colourful scenarios, however, as specks of blood hover tastefully around the unfortunate victim.

In fact the film is nicely enough designed overall, and the ensemble acting makes it more than bearable. Gyllenhaal and the invariably excellent Rebecca Ferguson give us most to hang on to playing two of the more resourceful crew members, and Hiroyuki Sanada makes the most of his character's troubling story arc, playing a technician who watches his wife give birth on Skype, then wonders if he'll ever get to meet his daughter.

Ryan Reynolds is as annoying as only he can be playing the smug and cocky Roy. But don't worry: no one in this film gets to look smug for very long.

Life

(15A, 104mins)

3 Stars

Films coming soon...

Ghost in the Shell (Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Juliette Binoche); Free Fire (Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Jack Reynor); The Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi); The Autopsy of Jane Doe (Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch); Graduation (Adrian Titieni).

Irish Independent

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