Life is Alien Lite. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare director Daniel Espinosa’s sci-fi horror flick to Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic scarefest or James Cameron’s equally astonishing 1986 sequel, but it’s impossible not to think of those two inventive, intense thrillers while watching this lame creature-feature rip-off. Espinosa and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take the basic plot outline of Alien, set it aboard the International Space Station, and proceed to drain the life out of it.
The familiar setup is simple enough. A microscopic, single-cell organism is discovered in a soil sample on Mars and brought aboard the International Space Station to study. It’s the first proof of life beyond Earth, and the station’s six-person crew think it’s beautiful. Folks back on good old terra firma think it’s pretty cool, too; a contest is held to name it, and the lucky school that wins dubs it Calvin. Soon, Calvin grows out of its petri dish and takes the shape of a small starfish. The cute little organism then latches onto the gloved arm of paraplegic scientist Hugh Derry (a good Ariyon Bakare), and refuses to let go as it intensifies its grip. From there, Calvin grows bigger, stronger, and smarter as it starts to pick off the crew one-by-one, feeding on their flesh and blood all the while. The ever-dwindling band of astronauts try to kill Calvin, but quickly realize that the Martian menace, which now resembles a giant, fast-moving squid, may be indestructible. Above all else, the crew must prevent Calvin from reaching Earth. The problem -- and this is where Life loses all credibility -- is that Calvin, which only days before was a microscopic organism, is now so smart it knows how to use tools, knock out the station’s communication system with NASA, brilliantly maneuver through air ducts, and operate complicated machinery. Really?
The ISS staff are populated with an impressive cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds. The one thing Life has going for it is that audiences won’t be able to guess the order in which the A-listers and the rest of the bunch become Calvin’s lunch: Just because your paycheck is bigger doesn’t guarantee you’ll be around that long. As for those three top-tier names, Ferguson makes the strongest impression. She plays a scientist involved with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who’s charged with quarantine protocol, and is the most determined to prevent Calvin from reaching Earth -- even if that means sacrificing the crew. She’s no Ripley, but she’s as close as Life can manage. As for Reynolds, he tries and fails to be charming and funny; and Gyllenhaal is so glum and reserved that he’s just plain boring.
Life is certainly impressive on a technical level: Espinosa treats us to a seven-plus-minute uninterrupted opening shot aboard the space station that takes us through its various corridors, control rooms, and labs, and it’s ambitious and breathtaking. Unfortunately, Reese and Wernick’s shopworn script lets the film down. Not only does their writing lack originality, it’s bereft of any surprises or humor. This last aspect is the most surprising, since the duo also penned Zombieland and Deadpool. It should be noted that there is a twist ending, but any savvy moviegoer will guess what it is long before it arrives, which makes it not surprising or shocking at all. But then maybe it’s perfect, because it fits right in with the rest of this predictable, lifeless enterprise.