Remember the ending of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity? Sandra Bullock, having just effected a narrow escape from a catastrophe in outer space, stumbles onto solid ground after her spacecraft splashes down in a lake. Steven Price's score swells as Cuarón's camera focuses on her toes curling into the rich soil of the shore—the first time in the film when she's had something solid underfoot. The effect is simple but powerful: how good it is to be alive on planet Earth.
Yes, those were simpler times back in 2013, when the choice between living on Earth or spinning forever into an infinite abyss still seemed like a no-brainer. Nowadays, our world feels like a much less congenial place for human existence (thanks mainly to humans), which makes Daniel Espinosa's merciless new film, Life, feel very tuned into the zeitgeist. We're barely twenty minutes in before David Jordan (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, the biggest name in the cast) is invoking the Syrian civil war and lamenting, "I can't stand what we do to each other down there." Jordan, we learn, has set a record for the longest sojourn in outer space, and he's in no hurry to return to terra firma, with its "eight billion motherfuckers," as he puts it. You can see where he's coming from.
This sort of attitude fits snugly within the "body-count sci-fi" subgenre, which includes Life's obvious antecedent (Alien) and the sort of techno-thrillers that were once Michael Crichton's bread and butter. In these stories, humans create or awaken forces beyond their control, and those forces promptly commence murdering those humans for their hubris. Life's main distinguishing feature in this area is its sheer nastiness: the incident that precipitates an alien rampage is nothing more than one person's moment of carelessness. It hardly seems a transgression that merits the ensuing carnage, but Life is merely making its stance on humankind clear. What's so great about people, anyway? Maybe we deserve to be lower on the food chain.
The thought is more than a little nihilistic, but this is a movie written by the same guys who wrote Deadpool, after all. It knows what kind of movie it is. There's something admirable about the efficiency with which it unfolds. Director Espinosa isn't reinventing anything here—the character types are familiar, the sequence of events is largely predictable, the design of the alien creature lacks an H.R. Giger or Rob Bottin to make it pop—but he still finds opportunities for flourishes that keep his film from lapsing into a rote genre exercise.
The first such flourish arrives with the opening, which stews together The Andromeda Strain, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the showy long takes of Gravity in the space of a few minutes, evoking the latter two with a welcome, deadpan irony. The crew members of the International Space Station orbiting Earth are tensely preparing to intercept an unmanned spacecraft, which mysteriously got knocked off course on its return from Mars. Unfortunately for them, the spacecraft contains samples of an alien spore that they resurrect in their onboard laboratory. Before long the spores grow into a cutely tentacled houseplant that is "all muscle, all brain, all eyes," as the mission leader Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) puts it. Whimsically, the astronauts allow some elementary schoolers back on Earth to christen the organism. They call it "Calvin."
Espinosa never quite succeeds in his goal of imbuing the mundane name with an creepy quality once Calvin starts stalking the astronauts. (More than anything, it puts one in mind of Bill Watterson's tiger-loving comic-strip character.) But Life overcomes that problem to deliver the goods in other areas. The alien's methods of hiding in the station's crannies and messily attacking the crew are filmed in ways that, if predictable, are no less effective for it. Editors Mary Jo Markey and Frances Parker keep the film humming along, pacing the alien scares in a way that recalls Apollo 13, which piled on crises with such clockwork-like relentlessness that the odds seemed insurmountable even though the audience already knew how the story went. We know how Life is going to go from the second we see Calvin, but that doesn't make the journey any less tense.
The screenplay has a harder time wringing interesting characters out of this setup, though Espinosa and his cast make a valiant try of it. Ferguson, such a revelation in the last Mission: Impossible movie, is sadly wasted here. Gyllenhaal and the other big name in the cast, Ryan Reynolds, are given more to do, but they never quite rise above the archetypes of Sensitive Man and Wisecracking Man, respectively. The real MVPs in the cast are the lesser-known actors. Ariyon Bakare earns the best-in-show mantle as a paraplegic biologist who sees outer space as a haven of sorts: in weightlessness he is finally free from the limitations that his body imposes on him on Earth. He is the most philosophical about Calvin's murdering ways ("He is only surviving"), and he's the one who articulates Life's ambivalent attitude toward the human desire to acquire knowledge even at great cost ("Curiosity outweighs . . . fear").
He is the first person to be attacked.
But that's Life. At one point, Reynolds's character name-checks Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, which is Life's way of signaling its philosophy of the universe. Re-Animator is an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story, and in Lovecraft there is no such thing as order, compassion, or transcendence. Humanity is not significant or special. We are a speck in an indifferent and often hostile cosmos and have no claim to special privilege. Espinosa's film, from its opening titles to a final shot that evokes a just-fertilized ovum, expresses this bleak outlook, though it wraps it in the guise of a blockbuster thriller. You can't take it all that seriously, but that's probably a good thing. The mind quails at the thought of a universe in which such things were actually true.