FILM REVIEW – LIFE. With Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Rated R for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror. 103 minutes.
There have been some outstanding science fiction films in recent years, movies that appeal to our sense of wonder yet also make us think: “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “Arrival.” And then there are movies like LIFE, where the filmmakers imagine they’re competing at that level but have merely dressed up old material in new clothes. It’s not terrible. It’s just terribly unoriginal.
Six astronauts are working on the International Space Station and their latest mission is to capture a Mars probe that has suffered damage on its return trip. It’s not a spoiler to say they succeed. It’s the premise that sets the story in motion. The six characters are barely sketched in, notable more for their nationalities than their personalities. Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) is the African biologist who is greatly excited when he discovers a single-celled creature among the Martian samples. He manages to revive it and the cells start multiplying, forming a more complex creature dubbed “Calvin.”
Over the course of the rest of the film, Calvin does two things: get bigger and starting picking off the crew one by one. Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s the plot of “Alien,” and the serial numbers have barely been scratched off. It’s more like a third- or fourth-generation photocopy, with neither the characters nor the creature are as engaging as in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film.
At that point, its simply a matter of seeing the evolving creature (nowhere near as inventive or frightening as the H.R. Giger’s memorable creatures from “Alien”) and guessing who the next victim will be. Will it be the Russian Commander (Olga Dihovichnaya) or the Japanese Engineer (Hiroyuki Sanada) who just became a father? The gung-ho pilot (Ryan Reynolds) or the Thoughful Medical Officer (Rebecca Ferguson)? It’s a safe bet it won’t be the top-billed Handsome Hero (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose character is developed the most. He’s been on the station for more than a year, setting a record, because he’s sick of the war and violence back on Earth.
Like “Alien,” this is essentially a haunted house movie with virtually the entire story taking place within the confines of the station. Perhaps the best thing about the film is the set design, and the acknowledgement that in the absence of a strong gravitational pull “up” and “down” have little meaning. Characters glide through the station, taking turns at odd angles, having to anchor themselves in place if they don’t want to float off. In a nice touch we’re told the biologist is wheelchairbound on Earth, but gets around the station as easily as everyone else.
In the end, “Life” is curiously lifeless. Where it should be grabbing us by the throat, it instead leaves us idly wondering if anyone will survive and what the final payoff will be. When it finally happens, you may no longer care.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.