You know the old saying “curiosity killed the cat?” Well, Daniel Espinosa’s Life proves that curiosity can certainly kill the astronaut, too, as a crew aboard a space station discover the hard way that some questions shouldn’t be answered… or probed with an electric wand.

A small team of astronauts, one alien, and one isolated setting where no one can hear them scream. Yes, the setup for Life, penned by Zombieland and Deadpool co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, may sound familiar, and although it never strays far from the story beats many sci-fi horror fans will be expecting, it does execute them (and its characters) with efficient, even ruthless, precision.

Despite its title, death is omnipresent throughout Life, and when characters do die, the emotional toll it takes on the surviving characters is painfully palpable. From its first brutal, unexpected kill scene, you know that Life treats its crew and their lives—especially the ending of them—seriously. This isn’t the type of movie where the audience will be energized by an impressive kill or laugh after being surprised by a lethal jump scare. When it works, Life is somber, shudder-inducing horror, and although it could have benefited from taking things even further down a grisly path with its R rating, it definitely had me cringing with discomfort on several occasions.

Dubbed “Calvin" by those watching on Earth, the alien excels in causing discomfort in its victims, growing larger (and seemingly smarter) after each kill. Calvin’s transformation throughout the film is truly an intriguing sight to behold, and hats off to the visual and special effects teams for creating a digital nightmare that will surely slither its way into several of my dreams over the next few weeks. The scary thing about Calvin is how fluid his movements are—it’s like watching Flubber go on a killing spree. There’s no escape from something so flexible and fast, and like the Blob, Calvin only gets bigger and freakier the more that he consumes.

As fascinating as Calvin is to watch, the chess match between it and the surviving crew members becomes a repetitive cycle of “fight it, isolate it, see it escape, plan the next way to isolate it, rinse, and repeat.” I understand that Espinosa and company have a limited amount of space to work with (this ain’t the Nostromo, after all), but a more unpredictable path could have been taken here, especially with a creature as cunning as Calvin. The attention to technical details in the screenplay is admirable, but the film feels stuck in a rut by the time it crawls into its third act.

This predicable ride would be more forgiving if there were engaging characters to take it with, but unfortunately the film lacks the personalities of a memorable crew. With the exception of Ryan Reynolds’ character, Rory, who cracks jokes and serves as a voice for sci-fi horror fans (even commenting at one point that an experiment being done on Calvin is “some Re-Animator shit”), nobody else on board the space station feels very much like a fully lived-in person—they always seem to be in “mission mode” rather than letting their guards down to show their more human sides, which I expected to see more of from a group that has been living together among the stars for some time. The glue of isolated space horror is the individual crewmembers and their chemistry together, and by not giving them enough time to properly come together or flourish on their own, Life makes it difficult to invest in its story, no matter how scary it might be at times.

Life is capably directed (Espinosa and DP Seamus McGarvey lend the film an effectively floating, anti-gravity atmosphere) and features some solid performances (Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Olga Dihovichnaya do some fine work here), but it doesn’t take full creative advantage of its unique antagonist to stand out as a memorable addition to the sci-fi horror genre. Barring a final five minutes that will make for great water cooler conversations during the work week, Life mostly plays it safe with its plot and has a problem in the personality department, but if you want some new nightmare fuel and you prefer atmosphere over characters in your horror films, then Calvin may just be the boogeyman you’re looking for.

Movie Score: 2.5/5

  • Derek Anderson
    About the Author - Derek Anderson

    Raised on a steady diet of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Derek has been fascinated with fear since he first saw ForeverWare being used on an episode of Eerie, Indiana.

    When he’s not writing about horror as the Senior News Reporter for Daily Dead, Derek can be found daydreaming about the Santa Carla Boardwalk from The Lost Boys or reading Stephen King and Brian Keene novels.