★ ★ ★ ★
Best selling romance writer Jude Deveraux declares that there are no new stories, just interesting, inventive ways of taking the journey with characters. “In romances,” she says, “the characters are going to fall in love with each other; you know that when you see the syrupy cover. It's how they get there that's the fun.”
The new monster-in-space flick “Life” would seem to prove this theory. It hits theatres on a mighty gust of déjà vu courtesy of “Alien” and “Gravity,” two movies that share its DNA and several plot points.
Headliners Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds are David Jordan, Miranda North and Roy Adams, three of six astronauts (alongside Olga Dihovichnaya and Hiroyuki Sanada) aboard an International Space Station. Their mission involves intercepting a shuttle containing a space specimen from Mars. In the beginning the microscopic alien, nicknamed Calvin, is benign, an inert collection of cells.
“We’re looking at the first proof of life on Mars,” says head honcho scientist Hugh Derry (Arlyon Bakare).
What could have been one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, however, changes when Derry feeds Calvin a glucose meal. The snack changes the organism from extraterrestrial to extra-terrible as it grows into some kind of jelloy-gremlin-Martyian-hellbeast, gains intelligence and goes on a homicidal rampage. The astronauts says things like, “We can’t let that thing in here!” and “You don’t know what it can do!” as they fight, not only for their own safety but also the survival of Earth. “If it is between letting it here,” says Miranda, “or letting it down there, we let it in here!”
If the story sounds familiar it’s because it is, but is Ms. Deveraux right? Is the journey enough to keep the audience interested? For most of the running time the answer is yes.
Director Daniel Espinosa keeps things wound tight as he ramps up the danger and the stakes for the characters. Unlike most space operas, “Life” is an ensemble without a clear hero. The small cast are all equally important, and all equally expendable which adds an air of unpredictability that ratchets up the tension. As Calvin’s powers increase the movie’s powers decrease slightly, changing from finely tuned thriller to space caper.
Near the end, with just minutes to spare, characters (I will not tell you who, no spoilers here) have an extended moment of solace. A time of reflection and for a discussion about procedure and from that point on it’s a by-the-book Got-To-Kill-The-Space-Monster flick.
By the time the end credits roll, however, “Life” will have subverted your expectations enough to earn it an “all systems go.”