“Life” is no pic­nic for crew, but a treat for us

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Michael O'Sul­li­van

Drama. Rated R. 103 min­utes.

The film “Life” is a test­tube baby, born from a blend of old-school mon­ster-movie DNA and sta­teof-the-art dig­i­tal ef­fects. At times silly — yet sur­pris­ingly sat­is­fy­ing — this tale of sci-fi sus­pense and hor­ror, set in the weight­less environment of the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, gives Em­manuel Lubezki’s ver­tig­i­nous “Grav­ity” cin­e­matog­ra­phy a run for its money, with dizzy­ingly deft cam­era chore­og­ra­phy and long, un­bro­ken takes shot by Sea­mus McGar­vey (“Noc­tur­nal An­i­mals,” “The Avengers”) that may re­mind view­ers of his work on “Atone­ment.”

In this float­ing environment, an in­ter­na­tional crew of six as­tro­nauts has been tasked with re­triev­ing soil sam­ples col­lected from the planet Mars, in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture. As the film’s ti­tle im­plies — and as the trail­ers make ex­plicit — that Mar­tian dirt con­tains a mi­cro­scopic or­gan­ism that, when fed oxy­gen and stim­u­lated by an elec­tric prod, be­gins to de­velop so quickly — both in mo­tor skills and what might be called “per­son­al­ity” — that the Bri­tish mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist ex­am­in­ing it, Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) gives it a name: Calvin (sug­gested by a child back on Earth via video up­link).

Calvin, to no one’s sur­prise in the au­di­ence, proves all-too-re­cep­tive to Hugh’s nur­tur­ing pokes and tick­les, and soon goes look­ing Ryan Reynolds in “Life.” for real food, in a se­ries of spec­tac­u­larly grue­some scenes, one of which makes gor­geous use of the space sta­tion’s weight­less­ness, and what might hap­pen to a hu­man who is bleed­ing out un­der those con­di­tions.

The CGI crit­ter — which goes from look­ing like a wad of col­or­less, chewedup gummy bears to a wet or­chid to an an­gry squid­like thing straight out of the bed­side dream-jour­nal of H.R. Giger — quickly has the dwin­dling sup­ply of as­tro­nauts run­ning scared, from one air­locked pod to the next, as they try to con­tain and/or kill it. But Calvin, who can hold his — er, its — breath for long pe­ri­ods, and whose ev­ery cell is both “a mus­cle, a brain and an eye,” as Hugh puts it, pro­longs their ex­ter­mi­na­tion ef­forts, at one point even run­ning around on the out­side of the sta­tion, like a mis­be­hav­ing pet that will eat you if you let it back in­side.

While this ever-moren­erve-rack­ing game of cat-and-mouse is well cal­i­brated by di­rec­tor Daniel Espinosa, the film’s real in­ter­est de­rives from the hu­man in­ter­ac­tions. The ex­cel­lent cast in­cludes Jake Gyl­len­haal as some­thing of a shell­shocked ex-mil­i­tary doc­tor, whose wartime ser­vice has left him slightly mis­an­thropic; Re­becca Fer­gu­son as a quar­an­tine-ob­sessed CDC sci­en­tist; Ryan Reynolds as a wise­crack­ing en­gi­neer/ space cow­boy; Hiroyuki Sanada as the jaded old­timer; and Olga Di­hovich­naya as the crew’s no-non­sense Rus­sian com­man­der.

Like its an­tecedents in more ter­res­trial hor­ror, “Life” de­pends on char­ac­ters go­ing into the base­ment, as it were, when ev­ery­one in the au­di­ence knows darn well they should not.

The screen­play (by Rhett Reese and Paul Wer­nick of “Dead­pool”) lim­its its ac­tual japes to Reynolds’ di­a­logue, opt­ing in­stead for a more sober over­all ap­proach to sto­ry­telling.

“Life” has cool ef­fects, real sus­pense and a sweet twist. It ain’t rocket sci­ence, but it does what it does well — even, one might say, with a kind of ge­nius.

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