Life is an upbeat title for a movie about six astronauts stuck in an orbiting slaughterhouse. Director Daniel Espinosa has made a salute to our cells; put them under a microscope and each one is a galaxy. Put the cells together and form creatures who run, jump, eat, breathe, grow, think, and, if they’re lucky, stay alive. Here, our villain, a cluster of Martian cells dubbed "Calvin," is simply out to do the same, and this International Space Station doesn't have room for two species. Espinosa strips "good" and "evil" from his horror flick. It's not personal; it's biology. When scientist Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) admits she hates Calvin, she sounds embarrassed, like she's just been caught cursing gum for sticking to her shoe.
Espinosa's made a clinical monster movie that reeks of iodine and plastic. The script, by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, could have been made in a lab. You see its influences — Alien, chief among them — as clearly as if they were cited in the footnotes. As mechanic Rory (Ryan Reynolds) says, "This is some Re-Animator shit." (When his commander, played by dark-eyed Carrie Fisher clone Olga Dihovichnaya, calls the reference obscure, he rebuts, "Not if you're a nerd.") Still, Espinosa wants to make his own, faint mark on the genre. He's got style, too, and opens the film with a spinning (and computer-reliant) tracking sequence that introduces us to the rest of the characters — the doctor (Jake Gyllenhaal), the microbiologist (Ariyon Bakare), and the cliché guy-who-just-had-a-baby (Hiroyuki Sanada) — while untethering us from gravity. As soon as the screen is oriented with all the people facing up, we enter a different room and twirl on our heads.
Yet, we can clearly see that these are sensible heroes. They're analytical, even when calculating the value of their own life against the team's, or, as the space station tilts toward Earth, against the fate of the entire planet. Part of why I prefer sci-fi horror to sorority-chick slashers is that no one makes dumb decisions. (Except maybe Reynolds's mechanic, who boasts that he comes from a long line of plumbers.) There's a level of respect, both for the victims and, here, even for their foe. "Monster" is too judgmental a word. If our protagonists are geeks in the mold of Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws, Calvin is closer to the shark. When Espinosa slides into Calvin's POV, we discover this predator is practically blind. To it, the world is a sour-colored blur, a '90s Alternative Nation video. No wonder it's always running smack into closed doors like Wile E. Coyote. All it sees is fuel: coolant, oxygen, blood. It hardly seems aware of humans at all, except when they attack first.
The organism has been unearthed — or rather, un-Marsed — by a team that's over-the-moon to discover the first evidence there of life. At first, it's a single cell with delicate flagella. Quickly, it evolves, shifting form from a bean sprout to a starfish to an octopus with the head of an orchid. I've heard scarier sounds than the flumph-thwap of killer jelly. So to prove Calvin can't be easily squashed, early on Espinosa unleashes him on a mouse. We've been dreading this lab rat's fate since the first glimpse of its candy-pink nose. Yet, its execution is worse than anything we'd armed ourselves to expect. With the camera pressed so close to the plastic cage we practically see the steam of our breath, we watch Calvin dissolve its bones into fizz, a spritz of gore photographed with the reverence of fine art.
Like life itself, the film is unemotional and cruel. It hides its own nihilism behind grotesqueries that force the audience's stomachs to clench. We can't help feeling things. After all, we, too, are just collections of cells, and Espinosa plays our nervous system like a flamenco guitar in concert with head-pounding drums and nauseous trombones. He studies death close-up. It transfixes him. He wants to hear the gulps. And he presents death to us like a cat gifting its owner a beheaded lizard. Later, he'll get so frenzied that the editing becomes a mess. But early on, Espinosa knows the awful power of a gorgeous shot. Soon after the mouse murder, a gutted human body hangs in zero gravity as though a corpse face-planted on a Jackson Pollack. And when Ferguson cries, her tear hovers like a floating pearl.
Most of the clunkers come when the film is forced to pretend it has a heart. A reading of Goodnight Moon is a groaner, and Gyllenhaal, the actor tasked with holding the book, looks as miserable as a cat in a bath. His character, a quiet veteran with a tidy crop top, has also been saddled with PTSD from his service in Afghanistan. The trauma is meant to explain why he's cloistered himself in the space station longer than everyone else, though the movie doesn't get much traction out of that besides a line where he laments what people do to each other "down there." (Ferguson gets a better geopolitical moment when she recalls being a child seeing her first picture of the globe from space and wondering what happened to all the thick, black borders.)
Though Gyllenhaal doesn't have that much to do, I like the way he does what little there is. His doctor is so passive and slender that he seems to emerge from the margins only when we're run out of options. The actor has spent the past few years figuring out how to avoid big Hollywood hero roles, and now, even when he's taken one on, Gyllenhaal turns down the brightness. Let Reynolds be Life's mouth, and Ferguson, its spine. This star gives the movie gravity.
In the film, Calvin is named for an elementary that's won a thousand-school contest. (Congrats, kids, your alma mater now sounds as cheerful as Ebola.) The name is such a specific, twerpy choice that I kept wondering what famous Calvin inspired the screenwriters. Was it peeing Calvin, since the creature is a force of destruction? Animal-loving president Calvin Coolidge, who owned two lions, a hippo, and a wallaby? Finally, I settled on 16th-century religious philosopher John Calvin, best known for calling masturbation "monstrous," who might have enjoyed horror movies if he'd survived 400 more years. He shrugged at carnage, writing, "Some men are born devoted from the womb to certain death." Life would agree.