The film “Life” is a test-tube baby, born from a blend of old-school monster-movie DNA and state-of-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 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, chewed-up gummy bears to a wet orchid to an angry squid-like 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. (The film includes a couple of imaginative Calvin-cam shots, which seem to show the space station from the alien’s point of view, as if viewed through a gelatinous goo.)
While this ever-more-nerve-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 old-timer; and Olga Dihovichnaya as the crew’s no-nonsense Russian commander.
The sometimes conflicting dynamics of their individual temperaments lead occasionally to poor decision-making. While this may be bad for their health, it’s great for the movie. 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’s dialogue, opting instead for a more sober overall approach to storytelling. (A wryly ironic reading from the book “Goodnight Moon” by Gyllenhaal’s character is the only attempt at profundity. It’s not that deep, but it’s moving.)
“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.
Life (103 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong language, sci-fi violence and terror.