- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
There is absolutely nothing original about “Life.” Zero. Nada. One looks for sample credits in the end titles, the way you might scan the liner notes of a hip-hop album, and expects to see something like, “Features interpolations from ‘Alien,’ ‘Aliens,’ ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ ‘Silent Running,’ ‘Gravity’ and did we mention ‘Alien?’”
You get past that and, well, you still have a deeply derivative sci-fi horror picture that seems powered by the most basic exposition and manages to telegraph its ending with an obviousness that gives “The Sixth Sense” the subtlety of Bergman.
Some time in the future, there’s a six-person crew on the International Space Station.
It’s an appropriately diverse bunch. Military vet David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been on the station for over a year — he seems done with humanity. Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is the sort of bro-ish one, while Sho Kenodo (wonderful Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada) is the one with a new baby at home and Perhaps The Most To Lose. Dr Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is the scientist who is really into the alien, Katarina Golovkin (Olga Dihovnichnaya) is the Russian, and Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) is the medical officer who is justifiably concerned about quarantine, a la Ellen Ripley in “Alien.”
The crew catches (quite literally) a probe returning from Mars and the precious soil samples within. After a bit of science, a unicellular organism comes to life. Everyone plays their parts exactly as expected: Derry is thrilled, North is quiet, Adams cracks wise, etc. The children of Earth name the creature Calvin, and it seems as good a name as any for the crew to yell as the creature gets bigger. And bigger. And a wee bit hostile.
Actually, no. Who are we kidding? That name is hilarious for the silent, jellyfish squid thing that the alien becomes. And hearing these doomed meat-sacks yell such things as “Calvin’s escaped!” and “Calvin knows exactly what he’s doing” is gut-busting — no pun intended.
Rather rapidly, we are even deeper into “Alien” territory. Orders are disobeyed, protocols are not followed, those ever-important quarantines are ignored. Sure, it’s to save the life of one’s fellow crew members, but nobody seems to have truly understood what quarantine means. One recalls the nest egg scene from Albert Brooks’ “Lost in America” — you want to take some of these folks aside and give them the first of many lectures on this very important word. (“Without it? No protection!”)
There is a certain pleasure in seeing astronauts — some of the most highly trained, redundancy-obsessed people in American history — acting dumber than hammers, but it’s a small one. Most of “Life” is filled with beats and tropes that have become part of the cinematic language, essential bits of our post-“Alien” world. The film’s final moments, a flurry of misdirection and cross-cuts, struggle to hide its proverbial big twist. But instead of shocks, it simply feels like an appeal for franchise status.