For those of us old enough to remember, Alien arrived in 1979 and promptly scared the living bejeezus out of us. It was the latest in the ol’ hunted-by-a-space-alien genre, and it was nothing short of terrifying. And it actually (surprisingly) still holds up fairly well today. It’s clearly no coincidence that the trailer for Ridley Scott’s upcoming spin-off flick Alien: Covenant (the second film in his pre-Alien trilogy) is attached to the genre’s most recent entry, Life.

Though not a direct descendant of Alien, Life is so similar that it may as well be the flick’s long-lost twin brother. As derivative as it may be, though (and, yes, it feels awfully derivative at times), Life still manages to be downright terrifying all on its own. And with an above-average cast leading the way, it emerges as one of the better movies so far this year…if you’re into bloody, creepy, horrific alien movies.

Set in an unspecified year, but not in the too-distant future, Life opens with a nicely-choreographed extended tracking shot on board the International Space Station, where six astronauts are successfully grabbing an approaching probe on a return mission from Mars. The probe carries a bunch of soil samples, and the astronauts are able to extract a single viable cell from one of them, thus proving the existence of extraterrestrial life. The cell, dubbed “Calvin” by some school kids back home, quickly grows into a jellyfish-like thing, and before the 6-person crew turns around, it’s already started picking them off one-by-one.

We all know where the story is headed from there, but Life still manages to stay interesting thanks in part to a solid script by writing duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. It’s a neck-snapping departure from their previous efforts, 2016’s Deadpool and 2009 standout Zombieland, but it winds up feeling fresh enough to overcome the old-hat story.

Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) keeps the pace moving and the anxiety amped-up throughout, and with the help of production designer Nigel Phelps (World War Z) and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers), he creates a wholly believable world in outer space. Then he takes it up a notch, making it as disorienting and dizzying as possible, keeping the audience constantly guessing what’s going on and where it’s all happening.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds headline the small cast, but in this case less is more. All the actors make the most of their time onscreen, turning in performances that are anything but phoned-in. Gyllenhaal, particularly stands out, and he continues to win my annual award for Most Underrated Actor.

Head into Life ready to grip the armrest and maybe even turn your head away a couple times, but also be ready for a nicely-done throwback to the days of Warrant Officer Ripley and her crew. It’s not a game-changer by any means, but it does what it sets out to do, and it does it well.


4/5 stars