The new film from Daniel Espinosa is a satisfying space horror set aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and it does not disappoint. With a cast of renowned actors including Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) and Rebecca Ferguson (The Girl on the Train), and some very interesting cinematographic choices, it’s got the perfect setup to explore what finding life on another planet might actually entail.
The clever part is that the film starts off very realistically, following the conventions of physics and how things actually work aboard the ISS. With spacewalks and the implications of working under zero-gravity being dealt with even in the minutest detail (even down to the footstraps to secure the scientists to their seats while they work at their terminals), you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re actually watching footage from the ISS itself during one of their livestreams. Just in better definition.
Little time is wasted in setting up the story for the horror part – the retrieval of Martian soil samples that contain an – at first – very innocent and inert single-celled organism. Once the organism is brought out of statis and people on Earth begin to celebrate, things start to really kick off once the cell starts multiplying out of control.
Here the film shifts from the super-realistic slow burn sci fi stories we’ve been treated to in years of late (Interstellar, Arrival, The Martian), and descends into a mad siege-drama, Alien franchise style. It’s immensely entertaining, and since the ISS in in orbit above Earth, the solution to getting rid of the hostile lifeform is not as simple as in previous films like Alien:Resurrection, where they just blast the thing out the airlock. Because here the lifeform is potentially capable of surviving re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, and every care must be taken to ensure this does not happen.
The gore is not held back, and some of the methods of character execution are pretty brutal. The alien design is also fantastic, and puts me in mind of a swimming sea-snail, or an octopus. It was a bone-crushing shock, but I found myself satisfied that they’d gone the whole hog with the eighties-style sci-fi horror convention. They have taken a lot of influence from the Alien series, and this was great to see.
Bad points: there was not enough character development. One character in particular annoyed me as they spent a lot of time injecting a family storyline to make him relatable, only to kill him off in the most over-the-top unemotional way ever. All that work fell flat in that instant.
Furthermore, the characters seem quite ready to accept their own deaths for the greater good of Earth. This is fine, but it happened too quickly. And there were many moments where a project coordinator would have pulled the plug a lot earlier than they actually did – the characters seemed to do a lot of standing around purely so the audience could see the gory scenes more clearly. Which was fun, but ultimately unrealistic.
It remains impressive that the entire film was shot on wires to simulate the zero-gravity conditions of the ISS. All in all it was a great film that will make you jump and hide behind your hands a lot. One thing’s for sure: I am never going to look at slime molds in the same way again.
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