Del reviews ‘Life’

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

“Life” Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. 104 Minutes. Rated R.

Del’s take

If you come away from “Life” with a strong sense of déjà vu, be not afraid. You’ve seen it before.

You saw it with “Alien.” You saw it with “Gravity.” You even saw it with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” “Life” is a 1950s-style science fiction B movie with 21st century special effects and a top-shelf budget and roster of actors. But despite the qualities and resources working in its favor, “Life” fails to generate much heat at the launch pad.

The story is standard-fare sci-fi/horror: A probe delivers soil samples from Mars to a crew aboard the International Space Station. An exobiologist discovers a protozoan-like organism in one of the samples and unwisely revives it. Then, as we have learned from countless sci-fi/horror films, the exobiologist unwisely feeds the organism and watches it grow until the day it abruptly decides glucose solution isn’t very appetizing and something heartier that will stick to its translucent ribs would be a better choice of menus.

There are no McRib sandwiches in outer space.

From there the movie becomes a grim struggle for survival as the astronauts match wits with the strangely resourceful and intelligent “Calvin,” as a schoolgirl has named it in a contest. To say anything about what happens next would spoil the movie for you, so I’ll fall back on my opening line. “You’ve seen it before.”

“Life” falls a smidge below the eye-catching and stomach-churning special effects of “Gravity,” but they’re still darned impressive, from soaring panaromas of the Earth and its landscape circling below to the weirdly unique environment of zero gravity inside the space station. (We even get a short tutorial on pooping in space. That toilet looked mighty small.)

Characters are thinly sketched as the monster mayhem ensues not long out of the gate. Jake Gyllenhaal is Dr. David Jordan, the station physician who seems slightly unhinged by his near record-setting time in space and does not want to return to Earth because a bad experience in Syria soured him on mankind. That moment of revelation is one of the few glimpses we receive of the man behind the doctor’s jumpsuit – and that’s more than what the other characters are given to bare except for station engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), who watches the birth of his child back on Earth via tablet.

Where the movie could have profited from its “Alien” DNA is in tension-building. Because the characters aren’t sufficiently developed and the action hurried onto the screen, it’s hard to care if they live or die. Director Espinosa should have followed Ridley Scott’s example and let us get to know these folks before exposing them to peril.

Some might interpret “Life” as a cautionary tale regarding the hubris of science, and they’d have plenty of ammunition. Again and again, science is portrayed as the rogue operator in this struggle of man vs. nature. But the movie never pursues that metaphor with any gusto. The missteps seem nothing more than means to achieve ends. Otherwise, there’d be no story.

“Life” deserves to be seen in a movie theater for its eye-popping special effects. The story itself is nothing special, and there are fewer thrills and chills than the trailers suggest.

Overall I would give it a grade of B-.

Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.