Should you wish to precisely parse the difference between Life and Gravity, a film with which it has a great deal in common, you can reduce it to a single detail: Remember the scene in which Sandra Bullock's character sheds a deep-space tear and it hovers in her zero gravity craft, a glistening CGI globule? Well, imagine a movie in which things go so much worse that the floating globules are drops of human blood. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have done exactly that.
The pair's most recent creation was the delectably unhinged Deadpool, so perhaps it's no surprise to find Ryan Reynolds among the six astronauts aboard the International Space Station, on which most of the movie is set. He plays a wisecracking engineer. The balance of the awfully good cast consists of Ariyon Bakare (naïve microbiologist), Jake Gyllenhaal (ex-military doctor battling PTSD), Olga Dihovichnaya (the crew's all-business Russian commander), Hiroyuki Sanada (proud papa who watches his baby's birth on an iPad 493), and Rebecca Ferguson (CDC scientist whose expertise is in quarantine protocols).
Turns out, that last specialty is a good thing to have on board. The mission, we learn after a few introductory minutes of scene-setting technical jargon, is to check out Martian soil samples, which are reported to contain a history-making microscopic organism. This is such good news that children on Earth hold a contest to name the unicellular passenger. For the rest of the film, it's referred to as Calvin.
The name grows increasingly incongruous over the course of events that, in the skillful hands of Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44), accelerate into the most imaginative, terrifying sci-fi thrillride since Alien. You just know Bakare's character is way too trusting when he reaches his protective gloves into the lab and gets all touchy-feely with the innocent-looking thing in the petri dish and it bends to meet his finger. And then extends cute little tentacles to clutch it. Aww. Then, in an instant, wraps itself around his hand like a blood pressure cuff from hell and squeezes it to a bloody pulp. Good thing the scientist didn't leave a surgical knife where Calvin could grab it and slice his way out of those gloves. Oops.
Lots of dumb mistakes are made over the next hour and a half. That's how horror movies work. Characters have to go into the basement. But Espinosa doesn't make any mistakes, and neither does Calvin. The angry amoeba is unstoppable, growing ever larger, faster and smarter. It seems determined to take down its keepers and confiscate their ship. If an Oscar were given for most creative kill, Life would be a lock. The picture is a symphony of breathtaking visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Nocturnal Animals), and breathless, relentlessly inventive action.
The final act ranks with movie history's most mind-blowing. Don't let anyone ruin it for you. Just make it your mission not to miss this instant creature-feature classic. It's so good, you can only marvel that, in this day and age, a studio green-lit this big-budget movie. And you have to wonder what this cinematic sorcerer will do for his next trick, in which he'll reteam with Gyllenhaal for the true story of an international team fighting an even more threatening foe: ISIS. Given what Espinosa has achieved with science fiction, can you imagine what he'll make out of real life?