There is a lot of familiar science fiction ground being covered in Life. The ISS's low space orbit and the crew's zero-G manoeuvres unavoidably bring Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity (2013) to mind. But, just seven weeks before a new Alien film is released, it is clear the film it is most indebted to is the 1979 original – the ISS taking the place of Nostromo, and a gelatinous space squid substituting for the Xenomorph. The squid in question, dubbed Calvin, starts off as a single celled organism, but soon begins growing and becomes increasingly hostile to the human crew. After the first attack the mission changes – it is no longer a creature for study, but one to isolate and destroy. Of course that is easier said than done – it is impervious to flame, able to survive in the vacuum of space, and getting stronger all the time. They may be hunting Calvin, but it is certainly hunting them too.
Where the film does differ from Alien though is in its set-up. A couple of shots of the Mars probe flying through space, a six minute tracking shot as the crew attempt to catch it after it is knocked off course, and then that is it – the organism is on board. Ridley Scott took over 50 minutes to introduce us to his crew before the alien burst out of John Hurt's chest, here all hell breaks loose in under half an hour. It means certain characters are thinly drawn, commander Dihovichnaya (Katerina Golovkin) especially suffering. Of the crew members, only Pluto has less depth than her. And even then it is a close run thing.
This is where casting familiar faces helps. Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) in particular is barely required to do anything more than put on a spacesuit. It isn't nuanced, but it is welcome as it at least gives us something to latch onto. Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) meanwhile does his slightly weird shtick, but keeps his doctor David Jordan likeable.
But Life is at its best when Calvin is the focus. From the early wonder as it begins to grow, through its spider-like movements as it breaks free and moves around the ship, to its final form, it is a memorably designed monster that is a threat on multiple levels. Whether it is crushing bone, forcing itself down someone's throat or digesting something in seconds (all visible through its translucent skin) it is an unnerving presence. It gives director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) opportunities to engage in body horror set pieces that are given a new twist thanks to the zero gravity. We may have seen the set up before, but there is enough flair to the action that such familiarity can be overlooked.
Part Alien, part Gravity, Life whips along at a decent pace and deploys enough engaging action sequences to make it work.