Many movies have tried and failed to recapture the intense glory that is the first Alien movie. Even the franchise’s own sequels fall short when compared to the iconic 1979 sci-fi horror and, if we’re talking about Prometheus, I think we can all agree that it falls short by a long way. With Alien: Covenant on the horizon we have another chance to delve into Ridley Scott’s thrilling, terrifying world, but while we all cross our fingers that it won’t just be Prometheus 2.0, I’m here to tell you this: we don’t need it. That’s because there’s already a movie out right now which is a damn near-perfect reboot of Alien, and it’s called Life.
You know the movie I’m talking about. It’s the one with the poster of three astronauts (Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rebecca Ferguson) staring at you when you went into the cinema this week to watch something else. Despite gaining positive reviews, it was released on March 24 with little fanfare, and everyone was still too busy watching Beauty and the Beast to notice. I myself went to see it on a whim and wasn’t expecting to be blown away but ended up reliving the same kind of tense fear I felt the first time I watched Alien. There’s many similarities between Life and Alien, and it’s clearly been a big influence on filmmaker Daniel Espinosa, but the key is that it isn’t trying to be an Alien sequel, allowing it to scare and surprise its audience on its own terms.
Let me be clear: Life is by no means a perfect movie (which I’ll get into later), but just like Alien, its success lies in the fact that it’s a horror movie masquerading as sci-fi so you don’t realise you’re terrified until it’s too late. The above cast is filled out by Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, and Ariyon Bakare who are all on a mission to retrieve organic samples from Mars and study them aboard the space station they live on. Well paced and with a strong story structure, Life doesn’t waste any time and as soon as we’ve had a bit of action and got to know the crew, all hell breaks loose in the form of Calvin.
Yes, Calvin is Life’s killer alien and unlike the Xenomorph it starts out as a friend so gets given a name. Born from some of the Mars samples, it’s the first definitive proof of life beyond Earth according to scientist Hugh Derry (Bakare) so the team - the whole world, in fact - are understandably very excited. Even the fact that Calvin is growing incredibly fast and seems to be able to survive in much more grueling conditions than is required for humans doesn’t concern most of them until it bothers them all A LOT. You can imagine how things go from there but I’m now going to talk about some stuff you won’t find in the trailers, so if you want to go into the movie spoiler-free, it’s time to close this window and return to it later.
Once Calvin turns nasty you start to see some serious Alien-esque goings-on as the sci-fi you thought Life was turns into a thriller with the cast being pick off one by one by a ‘monster’. As Calvin grows and changes appearance it increasingly resembles a Xenomorph - so much so that by the end of the movie I was wondering if Espinosa has had a secret, very frosty phone call from Ridley Scott - but this isn’t what makes it the Alien reboot we’ve been waiting for. The fact that, despite not having any face or any communication skills for most of the movie, Calvin still seems to have a personality reminds us how important the monster/alien cast members are in horror movies; something Alien sequels, reboots, and spin-offs have forgotten. Ferguson’s character says it best when she tells her fellow crewmates how, even though it isn’t logical (Calvin is just doing what it needs to survive), she hates the creature. This representation of evil intent, even when we’ve been told it’s not real, is what fuels our fear as we watch Calvin chase down its ‘victims’ within the bowels of the space station. This is something I always felt when watching Alien. Despite the Xenomorph never saying a word, I could see the evil it was intent on doing with every movement of its skeletal body.
On top of the that, Calvin also has a tendency to cause havoc inside human bodies. Ok, so it doesn’t start there and then burst out through its victim's chest, but rather goes the other way, travelling through any opening to destroy from the inside out. Watching Reynolds desperately trying to stop the organism travelling down his throat is extremely reminiscent of those unfortunate characters who have tugged and pulled at the Facehuggers wrapping tentacles around their throats. There’s a reason why this is a familiar trope in movies (even The Matrix has a scene where Neo’s mouth gets covered over with skin) - it’s one of those things we find truly terrifying, to have a hostile alien entity travel down our throats into the most vulnerable part of us. We can’t see what’s happening; we can only imagine it, and the thought can often be more terrifying than reality.
Just like in Alien it becomes quickly apparent to the team in Life that, above all else, they cannot allow Calvin to get to Earth. Unable to kill or even neutralise it themselves, they fear for what it could do to their home planet. So the mission becomes not to escape, but to at least ensure that if they all die, Calvin dies with them. And here’s where we get a pretty major divergence from Alien because each astronaut more or less blindly agrees with that principal and, even in the most fearful of situations, no-one tries to just save themselves. The entire ensemble of Life is incredibly noble. Shame, because other than it being a bit boring, it’s also not very realistic, and having at least one ‘selfish guy’ among them would have turned this great movie into a fantastic one.
Even this absence of human drama wasn’t enough to detract from the intense panic I felt watching the cast try to outwit the highly intelligent and terrifyingly strong Calvin, knowing that they couldn’t win. It’s the same way I felt watching Ripley try to beat her own monster and it’s not something you forget. While the Alien sequels and Prometheus reboot all failed to grasp what made the original movie so terrifyingly good, Life has come out of nowhere and recreated the simple, but all-consuming, storyline of a crew fighting an alien in space. And done it well. So it’s ok if Alien: Covenant turns out to be another dud because I just felt like I saw Alien for the first time again. And you can too.