With the tiny hands of the apocalypse ever looming on Earth, it’s no surprise that filmmakers are taking to the skies for their stories. In genre-blending films like “The Martian,” “Interstellar” and “Arrival,” audiences have been pampered with well-executed space movies. “Life” clearly wanted to jump on that spaceship and hitch a ride into box-office success, and this “Alien” retread had potential.
With a loaded cast of heavy hitters, such as dreamy Jake Gyllenhaal, bad boy Ryan Reynolds and icy hot Rebecca Ferguson, this alien horror film promised gut-wrenching gore and distressing suspense. Unfortunately, not even Seamus McGarvey’s breathtaking cinematography could bandage the ET-sized wound in the plot.
The story begins in chaos as a team of astronauts on the International Space Station is forced to execute a mission to retrieve the first samples of life from Mars. Alarms blast and people float around the spacecraft as the captain’s calm voice fills the radio. “Remember your training,” she repeats. Gyllenhaal, playing the time-worn medic who has spent more hours in space than anyone before him — which, if you weren’t paying attention to George Clooney, is as damning a sentence as “I’ll be right back” — mumbles something about how this particular mission was not something they trained for. Once they successfully catch the rover, the resident scientist Ariyon Bakare immediately sets out to revive the amoeba-like cell called Calvin, which is found in the soil samples.
The crew observes that Calvin grows at an astonishing speed, evolving from an amoeba to a plant-like specimen at a rate that would make Darwin roll over in his grave. The ensuing carnage begins almost immediately — though not before we see crewmember Hiroyuki Sanada FaceTiming his wife as she gives birth, really nailing in the motif of the title. What begins as a potentially refreshing alien horror film spirals from here into a surprisingly lazy compilation of tropes. The crew falls into their assigned home invasion-inspired archetypes — a soft-spoken intellectual with almost too much intuition, an altruist, a person blinded by their feelings, a hot-headed American and a token final girl.
The film also wanders into shark-horror territory when shots from Calvin’s point of view hint at a thirst for blood. What Calvin wants is increasingly unclear, and this seemingly invincible martian octopus-bug only gets less intimidating as the story unfolds. A good monster has some sort of weakness and remains in the shadow long enough to keep the audience guessing — Calvin, on the other hand, seems to exist in a world without rules in plain sight.
While Calvin’s super strength and slightly erotic scene with a crew member make for entertaining viewing in a campy sort of way, “Life” is a parody that doesn’t know it yet. While we can definitely look forward to the film’s interactive screenings at dive bars, it’s hard to say that “Life” is any more frightening than the actual looming techno-horror of life on Earth in the 21st century.
“Life” was released in theaters nationwide on March 24.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 27 print edition.
Email Sydney Rappis at [email protected]