Astronauts find an alien. The astronauts are idiots. The alien kills the astronauts. With a premise like that, it’s hard to see “Life” as much more than a modern-day, A-list “Alien” rip-off, but it surprisingly has more in common with “Gravity” than anything else. Aesthetically, the comparisons write themselves from the first shot — a “oner” that encompasses the entire first opening scene. While it lacks the scale and emotion of that earlier film, “Life” is nonetheless impressive in how handily it manages its tension and horror. The resultant film is flawed, but perhaps the most intense space thriller since Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 masterpiece.
Apart from being just a gorgeous piece of cinematography and direction, the opening scene shows off the setting, the key to the film’s successes. The emphasis placed on space as we know it as opposed to a futuristic starship a la “Alien” gives the film an immediately scary atmosphere that director Daniel Espinosa (“Child 44”) wrings for nearly every drop of tension. To that end, “Life” never goes for the easy scare, instead preferring to ease the viewer into full-on terror and let the characters’ increasing paranoia speak for itself. Much of the film is made up of several slow-burn scenes followed by bursts of horror, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s (“Deadpool”) fearlessness with character deaths, established early, makes each subsequent scare better than the last.
It’s impossible to go too deep into “Life” without discussing the alien at the center of it in some capacity. Without going into excessive detail, while the design of the creature will likely fall into “love it or hate it” territory, Espinosa does great work here, as well. From the moment its intentions become malicious in a sequence that is equal parts well-directed and frightening, the alien is a singularly terrifying antagonist. It’s a force of pure evil that constantly outwits and outplays the scientists, who — in a departure from genre clichés — don’t act like complete idiots for the entirety of the runtime. The action therefore becomes that much more engaging.
This is not to say that the characters on display are paragons of complexity or anything of the sort. They’re well-sketched more than well-written, not quite flat but not quite fully formed either. This doesn’t affect the movie too much, as there are some character traits to latch onto, but it does hold it back to an extent. Films like “Alien” and “Gravity” succeeded because of the combination of suspense and character. It would have been hard to give much depth to a cast of this size and caliber without interrupting the film’s pacing, but it may have also given “Life” the push it needed to move from “good” to “great.”
And on that note, the aspect that makes “Life” hardest to recommend despite its flashes of greatness is impossible to describe at all: the ending. Again, without going into any detail, the ending to “Life” is an unrewarding fake-out that relies on poor editing to get its point across. It’s foreshadowed from a mile away, but sitting in the theater, after two hours of sustained tension, it’s hard to believe that it was greenlit. It gives the entire film a meaningless cast in retrospect.
The ending doesn’t taint the entirety of “Life,” though. It is still well-crafted, and Espinosa’s handling of both character and mood is assured. Moviegoers looking for a good scare should look no further. It isn’t without its problems, and they keep the film from attaining the greatness it comes so close to, but “Life” is still an involving — if ultimately empty-feeling — time at the movies.