Note: Mild spoilers to follow, but I won't spoil the ending.
Daniel Espinosa's Life gets off to a crackling start. In a single take (one I'm sure was bolstered by any number of hidden cuts and digital trickery), a floating camera takes us through the International Space Station in the midst of a frantic recovery mission: a big-ass capsule on its way back from Mars needs to be caught before it can crash headlong into the Earth, and everyone onboard is pulling together to make it happen.
Inside, the crew is moving from one beeping monitor to the next. Outside, astronaut Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is operating an enormous crane, hoping to catch the capsule in mid-air (mid-space?). At the last possible moment, he snags it, and everyone aboard breathes a big sigh of relief. It's a strong opening, showy and economical in the way it parses out information to the audience, and by the time it was over I was feeling very confident about Life, indeed.
Then things started to feel a little more familiar.
Turns out, this capsule's brought back some microbial life from the surface of the Angry Red Planet, and so of course the scientists aboard the ISS have to start fucking with it. They stick it in a petri dish, crank up the temperature in its enclosure, and gawk in wonder as the microbe becomes a blob, and then a blob with tendrils, and then a gelatinous little bit of ribbon that suddenly stops moving. Excited by their discovery and desperate to keep the lifeform (which the astronauts name Calvin) alive, they opt to shock the goddamn thing with a tiny little cattle prod.
Guess what happens next?
For the next hour or so, Life unfolds pretty much how you'd expect it to: the alien lifeform doesn't take too kindly to being electrocuted, a few of the crew members end up on the receiving end of its wrath, parts of the ISS get destroyed as they try to contain it, the lifeform grows in size (yes, this movie contains a full-blown creature; no, its design is neither memorable nor particularly interesting), and eventually we get down to a point where the only crew members left are eyeballing the escape pods.
We've all seen this sort of thing before, and Espinosa delivers a reasonably entertaining version of it. The film feels appropriately claustrophobic, the cast (which includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya) all deliver their lines convincingly and with just the right amount of rising panic. When the geography isn't clear, Espinosa helps us out with a 3D, holographic model of the entire ship, within which we can see where all the characters (and, more importantly, Calvin) are in relation to one another. It all feels very sturdy, durable and just slightly above average.
Then the final ten minutes of the movie happen, and it becomes a lot easier to recommend Life. It's not that Espinosa's film (from a script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) contains a mindblowing twist - you kinda see where it's going as it happens - but you've gotta admire the balls that went into seeing it through to its logical conclusion. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that I was impressed, and that the last few scenes are so effective, it made me wish the rest of the film were operating on the same level.
The hard truth of it is, the "astronauts trapped in a confined space with a vicious alien creature" sub-genre is well-mined territory at this point. We've seen just about every variation on this formula that you can imagine, so even when Life is firing on all cylinders, there's still a been-there-done-that feel to the whole thing that, quite frankly, often just made me wish I were watching Alien instead. Big, big bonus points for that final sequence, but on the whole Life feels like the sorta film best suited for a hungover Sunday afternoon viewing on Netflix.