'Life' Review: An Old Fashioned B-Movie Dressed Up Like A Blockbuster

Once upon a time, Life would have been made for a sack of pennies on a set made out of cardboard and released as the bottom half of a double bill alongside whatever Roger Corman was making that year. Take away the modern window dressing and you're left with one the great B-movie templates: there is a spaceship and there is a monster on the spaceship and everything does not go well on that spaceship.

Life takes that template and pretties it up. There are movie stars and expensive special effects and a thick layer of Hollywood gloss, but the finished film cannot hide its origins: this is schlock in an Armani suit, junkfood beneath filet mignon. And that's perfectly fine.

Director Daniel Espinosa's science fiction horror movie seemingly wants to be the halfway point between Alien and Gravity and it mostly succeeds in blending extraterrestrial menace and more down-to-earth (in a manner of speaking) mayhem. It's never as scary as the former or as intense as the latter, but it certainly gets the job done. There are plenty of thrills to be found in watching a team of astronauts battle a bloodthirsty alien beastie while just trying to get by in a pressurized tube floating through a vacuum that refuses to support any and all life.

Of course, those astronauts do bring all of this on themselves. The six men and women on board the International Space Station intercept a probe returning soil samples from Mars and make the greatest discovery in the history of science: biological life from another planet! So they get to work studying their new specimen, watching as "Calvin" grows from a collection of biological cells into something a bit bigger. And then a bit bigger. And then...well, you can surely see where this is going and how it can go so horribly for everyone involved.

While the basic set-up is pure '50s, the actual execution of Life is torn straight from the '80s. The R-rating, nasty violence, and general sense of giddy nihilism suggest a movie that should fall right in line with bonafide classics like The Thing and cult classics like Lifeforce. Perhaps the most surprising and, if we're being honest, entertaining things about Life is how it cuts through its cast like butter, giving even the most sympathetic characters gruesome demises that look painful and horrible. The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick shows no mercy. Whether you avert your eyes or chuckle will be a matter of your mileage with this kind of material.

However, the film's look is pure 2017 and that's where the B-movie formula hiccups. With its lengthy, digitally stitched shots, cast of movie stars, and CGI monster, Life needs to serve two masters – the movie its makers probably wanted to make and the movie Sony wanted to put into theaters to achieve maximum box office potential. When the film is being a straightforward creature feature, it's intense and nasty and a great bit of fun. When it pauses for extended conversations to give fine actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds an opportunity to stretch their muscles, you can't help but wish that everyone would get this show on the road. While the actors are certainly likable, the film always, without fail, falls out of step whenever the characters stop focusing on the problem at hand. These performers are tons of fun to watch when they're running and dying and screaming – melancholy readings of Goodnight Moon (seriously) don't quite work.

Life is a pretty good movie made with skill by a solid filmmaker, but the 80-minute version released 30 years ago with a practical monster is probably a beloved cult gem getting a Shout! Factory Blu-ray special edition in an alternate 2017. However, this dimension's version of the film does conclude on a high note, with the kind of ending that will infuriate as many people as it delights. In the case of this reviewer, the final 15 minutes ensured that I left the theater feeling, well, high on Life./Film Rating: 7 out of 10