‘Life’ Borrows A Lot From ‘Alien,’ But It’s Still Scary Fun

After watching Life – a new movie about an alien wrecking havoc aboard the International Space Station – I sensed so many nods to the original Alien that it inspired me to watch the original Alien in its entirety for the first time in I don’t remember how many years. (And I bought my Alien Blu-ray out of a $5.99 chain store discount bin. Physical media is now inexpensive.) And there are a lot of similar beats. But, to be completely fair, if a movie is made about an aggressive alien people killing people one by one on a spaceship, it’s going to be compared to Alien. There’s just no way around that.

If you haven’t seen the original Alien lately, it’s worth your valuable time to refresh your memory – if, for nothing else, to just get all the subsequent Alien properties out of your head. Not to say they are all bad, but they are certainly complicated. The original Alien is so simple it’s genius. There’s barely any exposition. All we need to know is that there’s an alien on the spaceship and he’s mean. Everything that matters is, for the most part, contained right there on the Nostromo.

It was only later that the whole mythos about Weyland Industries became a central plot point, which was the driving force behind Prometheus. What started as such a simple premise is, today, a complicated universe. I guess that’s normal. It’s what seems to happen to anything that becomes a franchise. And that’s not even mentioning the times that the Alien crossed over into another intellectual property and fought the Predator. (This makes me wonder what other life forms that the Alien fought during its journeys. I wonder if he ever fought Watto? If he did, I’d probably watch that movie.)

But the original Alien is such a condensed world and it’s about as perfect as a movie like that can be done, so I suspect a lot of filmmakers have been a bit tepid when it comes to the whole “a mean alien is loose on a spaceship” genre. Who wants the comparisons?

Having said all that, I actually enjoyed Life. (Well, at least as much as I allow myself to enjoy horror movies. It’s so scary I had to turn my face away from the screen a few times. Full disclosure: I scare easily.) Directed by Daniel Espinosa (who directed the underrated Safe House), Life at least captures the spirit of Alien. Not Alien The Franchise, but the spirit of the 1979 movie called Alien: It’s small in scope, it doesn’t have a lot of exposition, and the alien kills a crew member from the inside out.

The alien in question this time is named Calvin. Calvin – who is given his or her name from a young girl back on Earth who won a naming contest – starts as a single cell organism that was discovered by a probe that had been on Mars. The probe docks with the International Space Station and the crew on board are charged with studying Calvin.

The head scientist, Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) thinks Calvin is cute. And I guess it is at first, as far as small transparent blobs go. But Rory (Ryan Reynolds) thinks Calvin might be dangerous – and, guess what? Calvin is dangerous. Calvin attacks Hugh, leaving him wounded while the rest of the crew members get eaten by Calvin one by one. As this is happening, the quarantine officer, Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), and the longest tenured astronaut, David (Jake Gyllenhaal), try to devise a plan to kill Calvin. One plan involves jettisoning Calvin into space – which, yes, is basically the plan in Alien. Here’s the thing: When you’re on a spaceship and there’s a creature onboard that is killing everyone, “jettisoning the alien into space” is one of maybe like four options. And it’s probably always going to be the best one.

If I were on a spaceship and an alien was killing people one by one, the first thing I would suggest is, “Let’s try to send it into space.” And I bet some wiseacre would say, “Oh, just like Alien, sooooo original.”

Adding more drama, the crew realizes Calvin is awfully close to Earth and they have to do everything they can to prevent Calvin from getting there and snacking on humankind. (Also, I do love the alien is named Calvin.)

I honestly could write a piece titled “Here Are All The Similarities Between Life and Alien” and it wouldn’t be a short piece. But I’ve decided I don’t care. This is an obvious homage, but it’s a good one. It felt purposely claustrophobic and it was scary and it has a nifty sort of twist at the end that was genuinely disturbing.

No one will do the “alien kills people on a spaceship” genre better than Ridley Scott did in Alien. Most sensible people will agree on this. But that doesn’t stop Life from being a pretty good, and scary, reimagining of this scenario.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.