If you’ve seen the (very good) trailer for Life, you’re probably still unprepared for exactly how terrifying–and fun–this sci-fi-horror hybrid is. Daniel Espinosa’s film is the scariest movie set beyond earth’s atmosphere since the original Alien, which is fitting since it owes a lot to Ridley Scott’s classic. Alien warned us, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” but your fellow moviegoers will definitely hear your cries here.
The premise is simple: a team of six scientists (including Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, and Hiroyuki Sanada) aboard the International Space Station analyze a soil sample extracted from Mars, and they discover that we aren’t alone in the universe. However, this isn’t an idealized notion of what first contact might be like; the life they’ve discovered wants to survive at all costs, even if that results in the death of the humans on the station with it.
The director paces Life with precision, knowing when to increase the tension and fear and when to dial it back. Espinosa (Child 44, Easy Money) and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Nocturnal Animals, Godzilla) establish the station’s geography from the film’s early moments, particularly in an impressive single-take that floats viewers through the various rooms and introduces each character. Each scientist’s personality is clearly defined through both the script and the performances. Gyllenhaal, Reynolds, Ferguson, and Sanada are as solid as we’d expect, but the relatively unknown actor Ariyon Bakare feels like a discovery here.
Life is best seen on a big screen, both for its jaw-dropping special effects (particularly the creature design) and for the experience of hearing others gasp in fear or groan in disgust–and then laugh at their own reaction. Espinosa’s film really goes for its R-rating, featuring deaths that might make viewers squirm. But that’s why we go to films like this, right? This is sci-fi horror as it should be done, a movie that’s entirely satisfying and successful in what it sets out to do.
Want more sci-fi-tinged horror–or horror-tinged sci-fi? These picks are streaming free on Tubi TV:
Cube: This Sundance sleeper hit also features six people trapped in a box trying to escape. Cube 2: Hypercube and Cube Zero are also available on Tubi.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of the 1956 classic is perfectly unnerving, thanks to a strong performance from Donald Sutherland.
The Dead Zone: We could make a list of best sci-fi horror films made up almost entirely of David Cronenberg’s pre-millennium work (The Fly, Scanners, eXistenZ, Videodrome, The Fly, The Brood) and be totally okay with it.
Lifeforce: Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) directs from Alien writer Dan O’Bannon’s script about space vampires.
Bad Taste: Is it sci-fi? Is it horror? Is it comedy? We don’t care because it’s directed by Peter Jackson and is therefore amazing.
Plan 9 from Outer Space: Infamously bad, this Ed Wood dud is still fascinatingly watchable.
A few of our other favorites: Alien (duh), Attack the Block, Under the Skin, The Thing, Slither, and Event Horizon.