If you’re going to be derivative, you might as well emulate something great. Life bears more than a passing resemblance to Alien but skillfully captures much of that film’s horror and suspense, so it’s difficult to complain too much. It’s been almost forty years since Ridley Scott’s movie was released, so a fairly potent echo of it will almost certainly play with younger audiences.

Director Daniel Espinoza (Safe House, Child 44) brings a confident approach to this project. He shot most of it on two large sets, holding CGI in reserve for the depiction of his monster—a Martian organism that gets loose and wreaks havoc on the crew of the International Space Station. Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal lead a diverse, globally-sourced cast including Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Olga Dihocvichnaya. The savvy screenplay was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, hot off their success with Deadpool.

With a score by Jon Ekstrand (a longtime colleague of Swedish director Espinoza) that follows the horror-movie playbook cue by cue, Life inspires every jump and shock it intends to, playing us in the audience like a finely-tuned instrument. Yet somehow the movie’s coiled spring loosens a bit in the second half as the story works toward its conclusion. Perhaps it’s the nihilism of Reese and Wernick’s script, which doesn’t paint a bright future for space exploration and scientific study.

Whatever the case, Life will give moviegoers the tremors and jolts they desire as it adds a notch to the résumé of its writers and director. But truth be told, it remains in the shadow of Alien, a tough movie to top, let alone equal.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024