Synopsis: A team of scientists aboard the International Space Station discover a rapidly evolving life form, that caused extinction on Mars, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth. (Source)
Life isn’t rewriting the rule book, but it’s still a solid space horror thriller with real grit and a propulsive pace. If you’re into this very specific subgenere, the film delivers and then some, worshipping at the alter of 80s creature features with a series of grisly deaths and a slithery alien that’ll make your skin crawl. Director Daniel Espinosa uses simplicity to his advantage, putting his characters through the wringer right from the word go, and blending technical precision with a primal story about survival. The cast is top notch above the board, all charismatic and helping us to buy into the film’s logic with fascinating motivations and idosycnreacies. If Gravity were a stripped down horror film, you’d get this movie, a no-frills thrill ride that rushes towards its conclusion with demented aplomb.
Things kick off with a rousing start. A group of astronauts aboard the International Space Station are tasked with capturing a probe hurtling through space after an altercation on it’s way back from Mars. On a race against time, the harried crew stand by for either disaster or success, but of course, they’re able to capture the probe and all is well. From there, one of the crew, a biologist, begins to experiment with the samples, finding a single cell that begins to multiply at an alarming rate. Their excitement of life on Mars quickly fades to horror, when the organism escapes their control and is bent on its own survival, at the expense of the ISS crew. From here on out, the story pits its astronauts against an enemy that is hopelessly out of their league.
What makes the film so fun, is that it runs along at a wickedly fast pace, hardly stopping to catch its breath and creating memorable set pieces along the way. Espinosa takes a very grounded approach, one that makes the film feel tactile and claustrophobic, so that when his creature begins wreaking havoc, we feel as if we’re trapped alongside with it. Adding to things, is a spontaneity that comes from each character trying to one up their prey – naturally, nothing ever goes right as the stakes raise higher and a race for survival becomes more desperate for both the astronauts and their unwanted guest. Though the film pretty much unfolds as you expect, there’s a lot of thematic texture underneath, with characters giving their unique perspective to everything, resulting in a very primal take on survival at all costs – the creature turns out to be a metaphor of life itself, unpredictable, unstoppable and with a cost. Needless to say, if you’re just here for the blood and guts, you’ll get it. Espinosa’s film thrives on extended moments of dread, especially that first death, which is a real nail-biter. Also, gooey, gross creature effects galore.
If there’s another thing that makes the film work, it’s the performances from a killer ensemble. These are all incredible actors, and they are what carry the film and its increasingly over-the-top logic. Everyone gets their moment and no two characters are alike, but there are some obvious standouts. Jake Gyllenhaal as the crew’s medical officer, David Jordan, is fascinating. As it stands, his character is breaking a record for the longest time in space, and his hesitancy to return to Earth gives Gyllenhaal an interesting perspective to play with. He’s weary, but also oddly at peace. Rebecca Ferguson, as CDC rep Miranda North, continues to showcase that she should be headlining more films. She has a stoicism and resolve that is unparalleled, and carries a lot of the story’s emotion and weight. Ryan Reynolds has a smaller role, but is perfectly utilized, a pilot/handyman that is the everyman we relate to. Hiroyuki Sanada is echoing his role in Sunshine, as a system engineer who has a specific tether to Earth. He brings gravitas to anything he does, and this is no difference. Ariyon Bakare, the station’s biologist gets to wax philosophical, blurring the lines between the creature’s needs and the crew’s. The refreshing thing here, is that none of these characters ever betray each other for fake tension, and never lose sight that the creature must not get back to Earth.
Life is what it is, and that’s more than fine in this instance. As someone who’s a fan of space horror, it’s great to get a film that delivers what we want and has a few surprises up its sleeve, since these kinds of films are far and few in between, and rarely good. Though this one will do nothing for the uninitiated, those who know what they’re getting into will have a hard time ignoring how well the film is put together, knowing exactly what it wants to be while executing it well. In the end, Espinosa’s latest is a solid, grotesque B-movie that doesn’t outstay its welcome and holds our attention every step of the way. And yes, the ending is pretty amazing – you’ll see it coming, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.