On the International Space Station (ISS), somewhere in the near future, astronauts conduct experiments on a mysterious life-form retrieved from the surface of Mars. When the organism turns out to be sentient, fast-growing, and very aggressive, meddling scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) does the only reasonable thing: he gives it unrestricted access to food and tasers it into a state of rage. Things go downhill fast, and the cookie-cutter cast of astronauts must face their deepest fears: a murderous alien, the deadly environment of space, and the punishing red-tape of quarantine regulations.

The alien, a kind of amorphous tentacled blob, is both beautifully animated and frequently terrifying. While the concept of a snot monster called Calvin (don’t ask) floating in zero-G may seem faintly ridiculous, the way it slithers about and attacks its victims is truly unnerving. Rather than simply ripping people apart, it penetrates, suffocates, and mutilates, which all makes for some eye-watering moments of body horror. While the use of gore is pronounced in places, director Daniel Espinosa conveys a palpable sense of dread by lingering on the crew’s frightened visages and via subtly framed shots of implied violence, which ensures that the horror is as psychological as it is visceral.

OK, who sneezed?

One major area where Life lets us down is in the use of bland, stock characters who never miss an opportunity to make terrible decisions where the threadbare plot demands it. There’s a gung-ho jock (Ryan Reynolds), the obligatory cold-ass Russian (Olga Dihovichnaya), and a new father (Hiroyuki Sanada) — while the plot does throw some surprises at you, it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s going to die and in what order almost as soon as the film starts. The only really interesting character is David Jordan, a brooding, nihilistic astronaut who’s spent too much time in space, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in an oddly subdued performance. Rebecca Ferguson deserves credit for an evocative turn as the idealistic quarantine officer.

A second problem concerns the plot’s dubious abuse of orbital mechanics and basic science. A niche complaint, I’ll admit, and movies like Gravity are guilty of as much. But even casual realism enthusiasts might find themselves scratching their heads at the silly oxygen glowsticks that make an appearance, the general gloominess and disarray of the ISS (hard to imagine Col. Chris Hadfield playing Space Oddity in such murky lighting), or the scene where Ryan Reynolds miraculously “catches” an out-of-control probe that is supposedly on its way back from Mars (in reality, it would be hauling absolute ass), not to mention the minuscule amount of monopropellant it supposedly takes to enact radical orbital changes, I mean the ISS is orbiting at 400km altitude at over 7km/s ferchrissakes, do you realize the delta-V it would take…OK, I’ll stop that now.

As a science fiction horror movie in the claustrophobic, kill-it-with-fire tradition of Alien and The Thing, Life is neither particularly original nor polished, but it gets enough things right to warrant a watch. Life is also a timely movie, resonating with zeitgeist concerns about life beyond our planet prompted by the success of the International Space Station, the discovery of liquid water on Jupiter’s Moon Europa, and the imminent prospect of both manned (one-way) and probe (return) missions to Mars. Life makes critical and philosophical overtures in this direction, pondering issues of ethics and meaning as humans encounter other worlds and (potentially) beings, but it feels like a bit of an afterthought, and never quite reaches the chin-stroking heights of films like Arrival or Europa Report.

Dan’s rating: 6 Stars (6 / 10)

Director: Daniel Espinosa
Writers: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare
Release Date: 24 March 2017
Runtime: 1hr 43m
MPAA Rating: R