Top flight effects make the actors weightless, but the pull of over-familiarity drags “Life” back to Earth, a shiny serving of sci-fi horror that never escapes the pull of “Alien.”
It’s a sometimes harrowing B-movie that has fatalism and inevitability, but substitutes icky, grisly, squirm-inducing deaths for frights.
In the very near future, a truly international crew of the International Space Station receives a delivery from Mars, soil samples brought by the Pilgrim spacecraft. They have experiments to carry out and protocols to follow. Can’t have anything they discover making its way to Earth, after all.
But from the exobiologist first, breathless, “I have a good feeling about this,” we have a bad feeling about that.
As Dr. Derry (Ariyn Bakare) coaxes a cell from the soil back to life, the film finishes off quick-sketches of the crew. Derry is a paraplegic scientist, Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is a sassy, swaggering cynic and engineer/astronaut. David Jordan (Jake Gylenhaal) is a sensitive pilot who “can’t stand what we do to each other down there (on Earth).” He prefers space, where no one can hear your angst.
The British medical officer (Rebecca Ferguson) is the best-versed on the mission’s many “firewalls” against contamination. Olga Dihovichnaya is the intrepid Russian mission commander and Hiroyuki Sanada is the Japanese scientist whose wife has given birth while he was in orbit.
“Life” dashes from “proof positive” of the first life discovered outside of Earth to “How smart is this thing?” to “It’s hard to watch people die” in short order. But as quickly as it disposes of plot necessities, it never develops a sense of urgency.
Director Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House,””Child 44”) and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick may be recycling “Alien” story beats and situations. That’s fine. “Alien” is almost 40 years old. Effects have improved by leaps and bounds.
But they didn’t absorb the steps and ingredients that create dread, suspense and shock. The critter is seen, in full, removing fear of the unseen unknown. The crew doesn’t so much underestimate it (They’re scientists, not working class space crew as in “Alien.”) as simply have little aboard that will help them deal with this “thing,” which the children of Earth have named “Calvin.”
Still, the performances are sharp, with the actors getting across fear, intense cold and a range of emotions, from desperate panic to noble sacrifice.
It’s just that “Life” is more inevitable than surprising. And that’s no way for a movie to live.
A Sony/Columbia release.
Running time: 1:40