More death than life

Life
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
103 minutes, rated MA 15+
3 stars

Frank Sinatra was right. ‘You’re riding high in April, shot down in May…’
That’s Life, a taut but puzzling space thriller set on the International Space Station – although I don’t mean the ISS gets shot down. Oh no, it’s worse.

The film has a good cast, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and the fast rising Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) leading a rainbow coalition of crew in that well-worn formula – the bug aboard the ship that wants to kill everybody.

Let’s not ask why there’s no credit for the late Dan O’Bannon: his script for Alien (1979) was not the first to have a nasty on board a working ship, just the one we all remember. In this case, the plot is more credibly contemporary, rather than futuristic. A real International Space Station (ISS) has been up there above us with crew for the last 16 years and the search for life on Mars has been going on since at least the 19th century. This could happen, or so they want us to think.

The real buzz here is the technique behind the incredible visuals, signalled by a dazzling open shot as the camera cruises around the station in a weightless glide for several minutes without a cut. I have no idea how they did it but the film uses weightlessness as a major asset for the whole film – both as an element of style and to establish a gripping sense of reality. The crew float and pirouette and dart like fish through the long tunnels of their lonely home, showing us they are both adapted and efficient in this environment. Once they have company, it’s like a shark is loose in the aquarium.

The six crew have been up there for different lengths of time. Dr David Jordan (Gyllenhaal) did time in Afghanistan patching up soldiers so he prefers space to earth. Senior colleague Dr Miranda North (Ferguson) finds him attractive but keeps it in check. Team leader Katerina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya) has them concentrating on their immediate task – to recapture a damaged ship returning from Mars with biological samples. Ryan Reynolds, as the joker techie guy Roy Adams, must go outside to grab it as its hurtles past. Hiroyuki Sanada, as officer Kendo, frets for his wife in labour back on earth. With the bounty safely back on board, science officer Dr Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) investigates the sample, which may present the first real evidence of life on Mars. He starts to play with petrie jars and different gases in the lab – and as anyone on earth could tell him, that’s a bad idea.

Life has no dull moments. It’s a gripping ride from start to finish, made with style and energy by Swedish director Espinosa, whose third English-language feature this is (after Safe House and Child 44). He’s become an action specialist and he pulls the levers with aplomb. The problem here is the script – which grows more derivative and unsatisfying as it goes. The writers value surprise over logic and the final reel brings in trickery, which is unworthy of this level of craft. That makes it feel like it’s a few drafts short of ready, even with all the camera mastery. In truth, characterisation is also a tad thin, for such a cast. That brings Life back to the pack, in terms of ideas and drama. The images are stronger than the story they’re built to carry, which is a rare way to fail.