Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Writer: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Producer: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
Six astronauts recover a parasitic alien organism that threatens to destroy everyone aboard the International Space Station.
‘Boring,’ ‘bland,’ ‘by-the-book,’ or any other unflattering B-word descriptors that can illustrate a film’s underwhelming qualities don’t necessarily equal ‘bad.’ They generally aren’t indicators of something being ‘good’ either, though the distinction is nevertheless relevant to “Life.” Because even though star power, sharp visuals, and cinematic competency disqualify “Life” from being ‘bad,’ its formulaic flatness assures indifference as a likely audience response.
For eight months, a six-person crew aboard the International Space Station has patiently awaited the return of the Pilgrim 7 probe from Mars. A rocky retrieval poses an early problem, but the astronauts safely recover the probe’s precious soil samples and dig through the dirt, uncovering evidence of life beyond Earth.
Named ‘Calvin’ as part of an educational initiative with voting schoolkids back home (if this were true to life, it would have been named Alien McAlienFace), a droplet-sized organism responds to a biologist’s poke and gradually begins growing like a seed into a small sapling. Calvin’s exponential expansion comes with alarming adaptability to its environment, suggesting it possesses a kind of sentience, at least as far as survival instincts are concerned.
I’m tempted to sarcastically say, “guess what happens next?” and assume basic knowledge of “Alien” and every related riff under Alpha Centauri can safely summarize the rest. Suffice to say, Calvin’s behavior goes from passive to aggressive, with the ISS crew caught in the crossfire of having to corral the evolving creature while it consumes every carbon-based construct it can.
With scant substance to its scenario aside from a pat predator versus prey motif, “Life” is left to mince minutes using a great deal of science-speak. Unless you’re filling a journal with notes on the creature’s biology or independently verifying capsule trajectory calculations, the film’s first third offers nearly nothing essential.
Dialogue is disposable blather about the rapidity of Calvin’s glucose intake, operation of photoreceptor cells in its neural network, proto-appendage growth rates, and other yawn-making yada yada. It’s like sitting through the Senate scenes of “The Phantom Menace” hoping, wishing, and praying Darth Maul might Kool-Aid Man into the room with his dual lightsaber and start cutting up delegates, simply so some sort of action might mercifully liven up the lethargy.
By the time Calvin, easily in the running for dopiest alien name in cinema history, does the equivalent, protagonists are taken out of the development oven and turned into cardboard cannon fodder before the preheat cycle even warms up. Not that “Life” expends effort putting personality into its people before that.
Scripting is satisfied to let actors carry characters on their own charisma, like a community theater production has its cast provide their own wardrobe. Ryan Reynolds plays the only part, a motormouth jokester (what else?), where adjectives can be used in his description. The rest of the roles are interchangeable lumps that don’t require a Jake Gyllenhaal or a Rebecca Ferguson, yet add high caliber actors to the arsenal anyway and never pull the trigger on their talents.
With so many words wasted on setup, there isn’t enough time left to play a good game once all of the pieces are finally on the board. Following in the footsteps of films like “Gravity” (review here) and “The Martian,” spacewalks, pressure losses, ripped suits, and suffocations no longer have the suspense to sustain satisfying outer space intrigue. And instead of a killer-looking creature, “Life” has an amorphous airborne jellyfish as its antagonist, making for a villain that is literally a gelatinous blob while the humans compose the same figuratively.
Straddling the hyphen between science and fiction, “Life” is overly immersed in the former and so “Natural Geographic” about that latter that it rarely engages through excitement. Sci-fi fans fervent for something fresh, in production year only but certainly not in content, may still have an adequate alternative on hand. The bigger budget spectacle of top-name talent and high-def cinematics make a modest case for giving this movie a one-time go in any case. It’s just that faced with the prospect of returning to “Life” a second time, those fans are virtually certain to be content revisiting their favorite space horror sagas once again. After all, why listen to an echo when you can go straight to the source instead?
Review Score: 50