Reynolds, Gyllenhaal take on aliens in Life

A-listers Ryan Reynolds (far left) and Jake Gyllenhaal lead the cast of sci-fi blockbuster Life.
A-listers Ryan Reynolds (far left) and Jake Gyllenhaal lead the cast of sci-fi blockbuster Life. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LOS ANGELES •Eight decades after Flash Gordon hinted that aliens might not have humans' best interests at heart, mankind still risks destruction in the movies to make contact with extraterrestrial life.

From Frederick Stephani's 1936 big-screen serial through the US$1.2-billion Alien franchise to last year's Independence Day: Resurgence, the heroes of more than 500 space invasion films have been lining up to die in new and inventive ways.

This year's first sci-fi blockbuster is Life, a claustrophobic game of cat-and-mouse between the crew of the International Space Station and a rapidly evolving life form that caused extinction on Mars and now threatens all life on earth.

Set in the near future, Daniel Espinosa's breakneck-speed thriller hits theatres on Friday with an international cast led by A-listers Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds.

"The script, pacing-wise, was blistering and terrifying. I mean, when I was reading it, you get to a couple of moments in the script, I was legitimately anxious, which is a very good sign," Gyllenhaal said.

The film reunites Reynolds with his Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, although this white-knuckle suspense horror is short on the snarky humour that marked the 2016 superhero movie.

"There's nothing scarier than something that's just trying to survive and knows a little more than you do," Reynolds said at the world premiere at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, last Saturday.

"I think people love that and people love a claustrophobic thriller too. Hitchcock started doing it and now it's been around forever."

Comparisons with Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror Alien - in which a deadly extraterrestrial stalks the crew of a spaceship - are inevitable, especially when Alien: Covenant, the sixth instalment in the iconic series, is fast approaching.

"I can see why people will compare it with Alien, but science fiction came from an old idea of noir cinema. I wanted my movie to play into that old American tradition," Espinosa said.

"Another big difference is the time, the era, when Alien was made. It was a post-atomic age when everyone was very much looking into the future. Young people today live in such a chaotic world that they don't think so much about what might happen in the next 10 years, let alone 100 years."

The point of Life, said Espinosa, was to make a thriller that would be entirely plausible today - a rover discovering a single-cell organism on Mars and bringing it back to the International Space Station, only for it to grow powerful and turn hostile.

In keeping with the "science reality" approach, the production team consulted British geneticist Adam Rutherford, who has published influential books on the use of genetic modification to make new life forms.

Espinosa worked with Rutherford to create an entirely original being made up of cells that can each perform any bodily function, and is structurally superior to humans.

The Life crew created a shape- shifter creature that adapts to its environment and can mimic whatever it comes into contact with, growing ever bigger, stronger and more threatening.

"We don't think that a life form would survive on the surface of Mars. The atmosphere is too thin and it would be sterilised by ultraviolet radiation," Rutherford said.

But he managed to come up with an idea for a creature that had survived for millennia by protecting itself from the Red Planet's harsh conditions. "The idea was that the alien has been in hibernation, protected from the radiation beneath the surface of the planet," he said.

Early reviews have been mixed, with the Hollywood Reporter predicting that the "underwhelming" movie may "suffocate in the anticipatory atmosphere surrounding Alien: Covenant".

Other critics have been kinder, however, pointing to its lean directing and refreshingly multicultural cast boosted by actors: Japanese Hiroyuki Sanada, Briton Ariyon Bakare and Belarusian Olga Dihovichnaya.

"Life is a thrill when it's smart, but it's even more exciting when the characters are dumb - which is ultimately a paradox the film wears proudly, to the possible extinction of the human race," concluded Variety magazine.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2017, with the headline Reynolds, Gyllenhaal take on aliens in Life. Subscribe