Ah, sweet mystery of “Life”! To be specific, what on (or off) Earth are A-list talents like Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds doing in “Life,” an effective but utterly generic monsters-in-space movie? Did Reynolds sign on before “Deadpool” revived his career? Is Gyllenhaal working off previous-life bad karma? Does director Daniel Espinosa have incriminating photos involving livestock?
The film itself rests on the most basic of pitch-meeting equations: “Alien” + “Gravity” = a decent opening weekend and respectable overseas sales. An international seven-person crew is manning a space station orbiting above Earth when a probe returns from Mars bearing red dirt and a single-celled organism in suspended animation. The science officer (Ariton Bakere), flush with the excitement of discovery, jolts the organism back to life. Whatever could go wrong?
Initially resembling a mass of see-through band-aids, the critter grows and grows, revealing a survival impulse and ability to be everywhere at once that only a stymied screenwriter could appreciate. At a certain point, the stakes turn potentially apocalyptic, as the crew turns from struggling for survival to keeping their discovery from reaching Earth.
“Life” is proficiently directed, with Espinosa doing what he can to maximize movement and suspense in this minimal dramatic space. An impressive opening traveling shot that twists and turns through the ship’s command center sets up the audience for an epic treatment that never quite arrives.
The more than capable cast includes Gyllenhaal as the station’s medical officer, Reynolds as a wise-cracking™ pilot, Rebecca Ferguson (“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”) as a disease-control specialist, Olga Dihovichnaya as the tight-lipped commander, and Hiroyuki Sanada as — actually, I’m not sure what his job is, just as some of the action he’s involved in toward the end is incomprehensibly plotted and filmed.
If you’re guessing that the more Hollywood-attractive a character is, the greater chance he or she has of making it to the end credits, you’re more or less correct. “Life” squeezes a handful of good scares out of its bare bones setup, proving once again that this is the most reliably Pavlovian of genres: audience sees dark hallway, hears low violins, starts salivating. An almost comically bleak twist caps the proceedings like the final panel in an old EC horror comic.
But we’ve seen it before, many times, with extraterrestrial bugaboos far scarier than a highly evolved band-aid. To pick the most obvious example, the original “Alien” exuded a far more primal sense of dread, with a creature that seemed to have burst out of a Freudian nightmare. “Life,” by contrast, is a brief bad dream with which to pass a few hours.
Additional note: The creature is dubbed “Calvin” by the scientists, but its namesake might as well be Hobbes. Like “Life” itself, this alien is nasty, brutish, and short.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 103 minutes. R (language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror).