Major spoilers ahead for Life. Read on only if you've already seen it, or if you're a total masochist who despises the element of surprise.
There are only two types of movies about space — the ones that make you want to go there, and the ones that make Earth look like Utopia. Like Alien, the movie to which it owes everything, #Life is what you might call Earth propaganda, a horror film about an unstoppable alien lifeform rampaging through a spaceship with murderous intent, a game of man vs. monster which will only ever have one winner.
Nobody goes into a film like this expecting to be surprised — how many new ways are there, really, to tell a story about the crew of a space station being stalked and killed by an alien? Because it's smarter than average, though, Life manages to pack three genuine surprises into its streamlined 1h40m story.
The first is that, despite loyally ticking off every box on the survival-horror checklist, it manages to be brilliant in its own right, beginning as a smart and optimistic story about new life before shifting gradually, almost imperceptibly, into an unbearably tense, often shocking horror flick with a straight-faced B-movie vibe.
The second is that Life is downright terrifying. The trailers didn't do a great job of communicating that, but make no mistake — Life is perhaps the scariest sci-fi movie since, well, Alien itself, for reasons you might not expect. The third surprise is the ending. Again, we're getting into major spoiler territory here.
Most of the film's first hour-plus is spent watching the alien, nicknamed Calvin, pick off the members of the crew one-by-one. Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) essentially "activates" Calvin, creating an environment in which it can grow. And it does, rapidly, from a microscopic organism into something the size of a palm. By the time he enters the mouth of Roy (Ryan Reynolds), who's trapped in quarantine trying to destroy Calvin with a flamethrower, the alien is the size of a small octopus.
That scene is gruesome body horror of the highest order. Both Roy and the five-strong team on the other side of the sealed door can only watch in open-jawed horror as Calvin disappears down Roy's throat, the whites of his eyes filling with blood. It's the moment at which Life gleefully reveals its desire to, as Ridley Scott might say, "scare the living shit out of you," and in those two torturous minutes alone this film more than earns its R rating.
Terrifying as Roy's death is, though, there's scarier still to come. It's the final twenty minutes of Life, scored to an insanely over-the-top, booming soundtrack from Jon Ekstrand, which really tip this movie into more darkly terrifying territory.
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Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Dr. Miranda North (the brilliantly captivating Rebecca Ferguson) have sealed off all the oxygen in the shuttle docked to the space station in order to kill the alien. Just as the temperature drops to perilous levels and two scientists have accepted that they, too, will die up there, Dr. Jordan realizes that one can sacrifice his life to save the other — and because Jordan feels way more at home in space (he's been there long enough to begin feeling the effects of radiation), he'll use the controls in his pod to send Miranda back down to Earth in hers.
At this point, Life feels like it's in serious danger of delivering a too-neat Hollywood ending. We've already seen Ellen Ripley live to tell the tale of her miraculous survival in the face of a killer alien. But that fear is soon vanquished by the creeping realization that something has gone horribly wrong. The two pods — Dr. Jordan's headed into orbit with the alien where he'll die a hero, Dr. North's down into Earth's atmosphere — seems to have collided with rogue shrapnel from the space station.
For a moment it looks like neither will make it to Earth, but that would be a stroke of good fortune compared to what director Daniel Espinosa actually has in store for us. As the Earth-bound pod deploys its parachute and lands safely just off-shore, a pair of fisherman head in to evacuate Dr. North. Ekstrand's soundtrack sounds a death knoll. As the camera glides around to the pod's window, we discover that North never made it back at all. This is Dr. Jordan's pod, and he's inside, alive — with the alien.
Because it's already been made brutally clear that the alien is "all muscle, all brain, all eye," we know beyond doubt that it can and will kill everything in it's path. Exposed to water, it might grow ten times bigger. It might multiply. All anybody can say for sure is that the people of Earth are now well and truly fucked — much like Dr. North, journeying to a slow, prolonged death in orbit.
So while the body horror that Calvin inflicts on the members of the crew in space is scary enough to justify the existence of Life, it's this bleak-as-balls, outrageously entertaining finale which really sets Espinosa's movie apart. That it waits until the final moments to deliver this cruellest of sucker punches, just as most films would be tying a bow on that slightly disappointing happy ending, renders Life one of the most horrifying sci-fi movies ever made.
Life hits theaters on Friday, and if sci-fi/horror is your thing, you don't need to wait for Alien: Covenant to get your fix — this twisted homage is more than up to the job.
Did Life's super-gory body horror and wild twist ending terrify you enough to earn comparisons with Alien?