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The meaning of 'Life': Elements of 'Alien' with more suspense

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds star together in the sci-fi horror shocker "Life." It's their first onscreen "bro-mance," for of those who have been keeping score.

If you're tempted to peevishly ask why they were featured together in all those jocular TV interviews, don't. Whatever disparity there might be in their screen times, they each embody everything in the film that really does make it as good as it is.

Which is this: There are two very real plot jolts in this film, one about 15 minutes in, and the other at the very end. And each of the big stars figures mightily in their effect (although the trailer hints at one of them).

"Life" is, to be honest, quite a bit dandier than I expected, which was, by reputation, a bit of an "Alien" ripoff in obeisance to T. S. Eliot's Law. ("Young poets are influenced; mature poets steal.")

"Life" has a lot more than "Alien" on its mind, which won't surprise anyone who knows we've embarked on an era that has become awfully good for outer space thrillers--especially those that deliver some real shocks to the system. Of the recent beauties, "Arrival" and "The Martian" occupy the top, "Interstellar Space" brings up the rear of the comet's tail and "'Gravity" and this one nicely hold tight to the middle.

This one isn't nearly as emotional, creative or as fascinating as "Arrival" at its best or as disorienting in its cinematography but it has elements of both. And it's far more arm-chewingly suspenseful. I'm not easily moved in my chair at scare-flourishes but twice in "Life" I was quite nicely jolted out of my seat.

It is, in that regard, a very good thriller. And if you add the two juicy plot shocks, this is not, in any way, a movie that takes its audience for granted and supplies it with nothing too special to grapple with on the way to the parking lot.

The plot springing from Ridley Scott's "Alien" is this: Six astronauts are on the way home after a jaunt to Mars. They have discovered a very interesting "sample" on Mars: a large single cell which, as the biologist aboard marvels, may indeed be the first living creature ever found anywhere but earth.

It begins as that single cell. But it grows. Oh, look there are cilia. No, they're flagella. No they're identical cells strung together.  It's growing! The biologist is delirious with his discovery, playing with the thing with his index finger as if it were an eensy weensy puppy.

It turns into something that looks like a combination of starfish and jellyfish. And keeps growing.

Oops. Then the fun starts. It starts to make trouble -- big, big trouble. On Earth, the kids have affectionately named the discovery "Calvin." They're about to discover that no Hobbes is possible.

Reynolds does the movie's wisecracking, even with old jokes about "Re-Animator." Gyllenhaal does the complaining about earth being in such wretched shape he'd just as soon stay in space. They've each got new things to learn.

Director David Espinosa does a fine job with that virtuosic pseudo-"Gravity" disorienting cinematography full of tracking shots going in all directions.

The movie will get to you quite nicely, especially at the end when it makes sure that your walk out to your car is jam-packed with stuff to talk about, rather than the same old, same old.

Let someone else steal from "Life," next year. They could do worse.



3 stars (out of four)

Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson in Daniel Espinosa's space shocker about six astronauts who discover life on Mars and come to regret it when they try to bring it back home. 103 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, sci-fi violence and some jolting frights.

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