Life has a technically impressive beginning, quickly establishing a sense of zero gravity and spatial flexibility with its camera movements. The main action of the opening scene with the crew of ISS is at a distance, allowing us to witness each crew member and garner first impressions from all of them by a cursory sentence or two. Life therefore, from the get-go, is about relationships and how the characters relate to each other as well as to the new presence on their ship.
Comparisons to Ridley Scott's Alien are possibly inevitable, given that Life is similarly about a crew that encounters the first evidence of extraterrestrial life. While researching the single-celled organism in a highly controlled lab, their interference with the creature leads to a rapid evolution and unforeseen and terrifying consequences.
Life veers too closely to Alien in some scenes to avoid association, and that's unfortunately much to its detriment. One only has to look at how Scott is able to create a masterpiece of tension using only a blinking green dot in a scene where they're tracking the alien and then compare how it's done similarly in Life to feel that. The best way to accept Life is not necessarily as a mediocre sci-fi movie, but rather as an updated 1950s creature feature. Then we can comprehend what director Daniel Espinosa has attempted here, and maybe...just maybe...forgive those snippets of scenes where we see the film through the alien's point-of-view. There are the barest bones of character depth here -- more a promise that is unfulfilled than anything else -- and yet we can fully appreciate that he has finally assembled a cast in a horror movie that doesn't make unfathomable idiotic decisions, even though he feels the need to narrate the intelligence of each flawed decision made. Think of Life as a final girl scenario with intelligent altruistic individuals. This, thankfully, allows us to fathom the magnitude of the alien's power, rather than believe we could have done better in a similar situation.
There is a truly gifted crew assembled on both sides of the camera here, but there's a sense of things not quite coming together. Ryan Reynolds plays his usual smart-aleck, likable rogue to the point that it's almost like Deadpool is making a cameo -- which might have to do with writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick who penned Zombieland and...yup, Deadpool. Jake Gyllenhaal similarly plays a flawed character on the brink of breakdown that he almost (at this point) tiresomely fills with some vexing acting tool, like the hard blink of his Loki in Prisoners or that lean coyote gleam of Nightcrawler. Rebecca Ferguson is as stunning as ever as a CDC officer, but some kind of drinking game could probably be formulated over how many times she says "quarantine" or "firewall". The three of them, as well as the rest of the cast, are simply so likable though and talented, they're winning enough to make Life work, for the most part.
Far more interesting, are Espinosa's choices in how to make the characters interact with each other and with the alien. Ferguson is always putting the alien at a distance (aside from her use of the word firewall), and so her character is seen through glass or at a distance whenever possible. The fate of each character often correlates with how they interact with the alien, and even the alien formulates a sort of synthetic starfish formation near the beginning in an imitation of the gloved hand it first interacts with.
It's not cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's best work (even his most recent Nocturnal Animals blows this away), but again it suffers from comparison to other sci-fi films. The best directors and cinematographers have made the foray into space, from Denis Villenueve to Stanley Kubrick, and Hoyte Van Hoytema to Emmanuel Lubezki. As much as we can appreciate Espinosa's use of a single camera to focus our perspective, the zero gravity tricks dazzle better in a read page from Ender's Game and the lack of spatial clarity in the ISS reduces the fear of being stuck in a small space with a monster. Admittedly, although there's something undeniably alluring about the genre, it takes something really spectacular to make an impression in what's becoming an over saturated frontier.