Hot and humid Japanese summers call for kaidan, scary stories that send shivers down the spine. In the days before we had air conditioning, kids would gather around after dinner to tell and listen to those terrifying tales in an effort to chill out with genuine chills.
At our house, my mother turned the AC off at night and my siblings and I would sneak off to the convenience store for free air conditioning as we were too lazy to tell kaidan. If only “Life” had been around back then — it’s so chilling that us kids would’ve needed extra blankets.
Daniel Espinosa’s film is a horrific tale set in the confines of a near-future International Space Station, where the lighting is not unlike what you’ll find in a modern convenience store: florescent white with ominous dark corners, the perfect spot for something bad to happen. The crew, consisting of Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Ariyon Bakare (Hugh Derry) and Olga Dlhovichnaya (Ekaterina Golovkina), have intercepted a research capsule from Mars that contains signs of life.
That’s right, a real Martian! They name it Calvin and coax it to grow, though it turns out Calvin needs no encouragement. This life form is all muscle — so powerful and smart that in a very short time it develops from a small insect-like entity to a ferocious monster.
Yes, “Life” is Ridley Scott’s “Alien” all over again, right down to the number of crew members (not counting the android). It’s not hard to imagine Espinosa and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Deadpool”) sitting on a basement sofa and dissecting every single frame of Scott’s 1979 classic. Entire scenes from “Alien” are re-enacted in “Life,” like when Calvin first gains entry aboard the ship, only one crew member opposes the move: In “Alien” it was Ripley, in “Life” it’s quarantine expert Miranda.
Yet it would be unfair to call “Life” a remake or a rip-off, and not just because of the ending. Well-crafted and acted, it has moments of hilarity, thanks to Ryan Reynolds channeling the same sense of humor he employed in “Deadpool”, and the writers pretty much hack away at the “evil corporation” trope that tends to lurk in the background of most sci-fi (the corporation here is also part Japanese — salarymen should be proud).
The ambience of the film is also just a tad more relaxed than it was in “Alien,” leaning toward more pondering and philosophical musing. Gyllenhaal’s David is an interesting one to watch in this regard: He’s a doctor whose experiences in war zones back on Earth have made him skeptical about everything, which includes the motives behind his own survival.
“Life” may lack the gripping intensity of “Alien,” but after 40 years maybe the whole concept of space has become a little less intimidating. My main gripe is not that “Life” imitates “Alien” art, but that Sanada gets much too little screen time (call me a patriot, I guess).
Overall, the film does what it sets out to do: spill blood and guts with abandon, gleefully entrap and torture its characters and delight in building the kind of tense claustrophobia that induces a cold sweat. If there was a mantra on the soundtrack, it would go like this: We’re going to die, we’re going to die, we’re going to die. That makes for quite a summertime kaidan.