After the relatively warm-and-fuzzy space odysseys of “Arrival” and “Passengers” it’s salutary to see a relatively big studio sci-fi picture in which the final frontier is once again relegated to the status of Ultimate Menace. Genre thrill-seekers disgusted/disappointed by “Prometheus” but still salivating like Pavlov’s Dog at the prospect of “Alien: Covenant” might find “Life,” directed by Daniel Espinosa, a satisfactory stopgap measure, a cinematic Epipen of outer-space mayhem to steady the nerves until the ostensible Main Event. As for myself, I’ve been gorging on such fare since before “Alien” itself—“It! The Terror from Beyond Space” and “Planet of the Vampires” were among my various cinematic bread and butters as a young maladjusted cinephile.
As such, “Life” struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat. The picture takes place almost entirely on a claustrophobic, labyrinthine space station; director Espinosa and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey have a lot of fun in the early scene “floating” the camera along with the space station crew. Ryan Reynold’s cocky Roy is the cowboy of the bunch; he goes on a spacewalk to catch an off-course capsule full of research materials straight from Mars. Cautious medical officer David, played by an often bug-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal, is initially the fella who says things like “We weren’t trained for this.” Rebecca Ferguson’s Miranda plays den mother to him and others. Science dude Hugh (Ariyon Bakare), paralyzed from the waist down, loves zero gravity conditions, and initially loves the single-cell organism (named “Calvin” by a group of contest-winning schoolchildren down on home sweet Earth) he’s wrested from a sample of Martian soil. Two other crew members are played by Olga Dihovichnaya and Hiroyuki Sanada, the latter back in space for the first time since Danny Boyle’s 2007 “Sunshine.”
You may remember the nickname “Dead Meat” from “Hot Shots,” or the phrase “Bantha Fodder” from one of the “Star Wars” movies. However. One of the bigger-name crew members does get to play (spoiler alert, sort of) a reprise of the Steven Seagal role in “Executive Decision.” That’s because little Calvin suddenly starts growing awful fast. At first it’s kind of like a living version of those icky sticky wall-tumbling toys. Which is bad enough. Eventually it grows into a tentacled cross between a mutant lotus and an irritated cobra. It’s pretty gnarly. But early on I thought, let’s face it, it ain’t Giger. Or Giger-league. And without that you’re always going to suffer by comparison. The other effects and settings are solid but unextraordinary, although the hiccupped blood bubbles that float around after escaping from Calvin’s victims are a nice ghoulish touch.
There’s also the constant, insistent score by Jon Ekstrand, bearing down right from the opening and not doing much for the cause. There are some disquieting bits—the early scene in which the maturing Calvin grabs on to Hugh’s gloved hand and simply will not let go is a nice burner, for sure. But the movie’s story “beats” are inescapably commonplace. (There’s even a bit derived from “The Thing From Another World” in which one ill-advised character contemplates Calvin’s scientific awesomeness.) Either screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick haven’t got the goods, or there really are only so many things you can do with a homicidal space creature and a manned ship.
It doesn’t help that just as the movie should be hurtling toward its climax, it pauses for some character development. A children’s book that makes a Chekhovian appearance in the “first act” holds the key to survival in the final one, and I didn’t buy it. What the filmmakers don’t understand is that when you try to add overtly cerebral notes to ruthless B-picture scenarios, you actually wind up making your final product dumber than the movies you think you’re transcending. “Life” bounces back a bit with a commitedly sour punchline, and then blows that by punching up a ‘70s hit you’ve heard a million times before in a million better cinematic contexts. And that’s “Life.”