Fear the unknown. That’s the message most alien films seem to want to deliver – Arrival being the rare exception. Other life forms will seek to conquer humans, sometimes with an obvious plan, and sometimes almost instinctually. While that’s a troubling premise, it’s hard to deny that it can be effective. It’s an idea that the astronauts in Life probably wish they’d heeded.
A team of researchers aboard the International Space Station obtain the first definitive proof of sentient life outside of Earth: a carbon-based organism found on Mars, small enough to fit in a petri dish. Those on board are fascinated by the creature, as are humans on Earth. They even name the being “Calvin.” Eventually, though, the scientists learn in a quick sequence of events that Calvin is far more vicious than they could have ever imagined.
The film takes some time early on setting up the awe and wonder that everyone seems to have for what’s going on, cutting to the title further into the film than one might imagine. Once that awe turns to horror, though, Life moves quickly, trying to find a way to eliminate Calvin. Calvin, though, begins to grow at an alarming rate, turning into a strange sort of Martian octopus with its ability to slip through tight spaces and swim through the weightlessness of space and the ISS.
What dings the film is the human crew aboard the ISS. They’re an odd and occasionally infuriating blend of smart and stupid, with several of the events that occur in the film being a direct result of human carelessness. With the exception of Ryan Reynolds (who must be doing a favor for his Deadpool screenwriters here), they’re also painfully dull.
That being said, the film cares more about the carnage from Calvin than anything the humans do. There’s a viciousness to Calvin’s presence, and to the way he dispatches of the astronauts. The film also cruelly subverts the ending of another recent film set in the seeming hopelessness of space. It’s darkly effective as a fun space thriller. Just don’t go in expecting anything more substantial.