Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” famously describes itself as telling “a tale as old as time,” but Daniel Espinosa’s sci-fi movie “Life” relates one that, in cinematic terms, is only slightly more youthful: a space vessel finds evidence of extraterrestrial life and the crew takes it aboard. Under scientific observation it develops quickly, becoming predatory and picking off the humans one by one. Obviously, it must be prevented from reaching earth, where it could wreak untold havoc.
We’ve seen this scenario on screen countless times, in “Alien” most notably, but also in plenty of B-movies from the 1950s as well as innumerable clones of Ridley Scott’s 1979 blockbuster. One thing that distinguishes this retelling is an exceptional cast, which does its best to breathe some dramatic life into the unexceptional story. Another positive is the creature effects that are quite impressive (even if in its final form the gelatinous, octopus-like ET resembles one of the aliens Ben Tennyson used to morph into). Ultimately, though, the technical polish and Hollywood star power aren’t enough to save the movie from a been-there, seen-that feel.
The setting is a multi-billion-dollar space station, tasked with undertaking a dangerous maneuver to recover a Mars probe that took samples of soil but was knocked off its return trajectory by a meteor shower. The crew succeeds, thanks to the cowboy courage of Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds), who, during a space walk, maneuvers a giant space arm to catch the speeding capsule. When the sample is studied by resident biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), he discovers a microscopic single-cell organism that he excitedly begins to study as the first proof of extraterrestrial life. The find is relayed to earth, where a contest among schoolchildren results in its being named Calvin.
But Calvin turns out to be more Hobbesian, driven exclusively by the need to survive. And Dr. Derry—confined to a wheelchair on earth but able to move about freely on the zero-gravity station—proves to be the successor to the many overeager geniuses in such stories. When the shimmering, plant-like critter, which has grown quickly in size, suddenly goes dormant, he decides to shock it with energy to wake it up. That’s a terrible mistake, since it not only brings the thing back into action but apparently makes it very hungry.
Thus begins the body count. It wouldn’t be fair to disclose the order of the deaths, or the grisly depictions of them. Suffice it to say that in addition to Adams and Derry, those aboard the station are mission commander Katerina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya), engineer Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), the representative of the CDC, and medic David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal). All act out of a mixture of motives—self-preservation and self-sacrifice chief among them. But Calvin proves a wily adversary, extraordinarily fast and adaptive, capable of surviving blasts of energy and fire but with weaknesses that can perhaps be exploited.
There’s a great deal of running around from airlock to airlock in “Life”—one of the movie’s most notable features is Nigel Phelps’ production design, which presents the station’s interior as a labyrinth of interlocking, heavily-equipped tubes, through which the crew fly about, barely missing one another as they pass. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey uses it to the full, toward the start in a long, intricate tracking shot that mimics Orson Welles’ classic “Touch of Evil” opening (though, it must be said, without the same frisson—a copy never matches the original).
The cast fling themselves into the action, and all do reasonably well overall, even if even the best of them, like Gyllenhaal, can’t overcome the fact that the roles are very sketchily written. The lack of interesting dialogue in the script—along with anything but a few dollops of juvenile humor—is surprising given the previous work of scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who have elsewhere shown a lot more imagination and verbal flair. Of course, the need to incorporate reams of scientific gobbledygook in an attempt to explain, however fatuously, what’s happening is a definite drawback. Still, Reese and Wernick might at least have made more of an effort to clarify the twist at the close, which seems utterly random.
The lack of clarity there—and at a few other points in the final reel—must, of course, be blamed not only on the writers but on Espinosa and editors Frances Parker and Mary Jo Markey. Until that point they have kept things reasonably intelligible despite the generally hectic pace once the creature gets loose; but as the action of the last act grows increasingly chaotic, their control seems to slip as well. Meanwhile Jon Ekstrand’s propulsive score ratchets up the volume to emphasize the prospect of looming disaster.
“Life” has been given A-list treatment, but in the end it’s nothing more than a competent retread of a formula better served elsewhere.