Look, I get it. There has to be a mighty temptation to merge horror with science fiction. If one geeky genre has an irresistible appeal, shouldn’t an artful melding of the two inherently double the allure? Chocolate chip cookie dough and ice cream are great separately. Together, they’re life-changing. And there’s always Alien, just sitting out there, an 117-minute argument in favor of this particular sort of cinematic amalgamation. Unfortunately, there are far more arguments against that have been offered up over the years. For every Alien, there are countless Event Horizons.
Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa, is no Alien, no matter how it strains and aches to evoke Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic. For one thing, Life takes a stab at recreating the working-stiffs-in-space vibe that is one of the earlier film’s most underappreciated strengths. In this case, it’s a slightly more refined crew of professionals, a group of scientists and astronauts on the International Space Station. Their primary mission entails retrieving a probe that contains biological samples plucked from Mars. After some investigation, the crew’s biologist (Ariyon Bakare) confirms there is a life form in the sample. Initially a benign, undulating mass, the creature evolves to become a far more challenging presence, a perhaps unsurprising outcome after the biologist observes unique levels of cellular multitasking in the globby being.
What follows from the creature’s turn towards malevolence is, predictably, escalating mayhem. The individual crew members have their unfortunate tangles with the transplanted Martian, ticked off one-by-one to suit narrative needs rather than any sort of internal logic. A big part of the problem is a decided lack of consistency in the actions and reactions of the marauding outer space starfish that causes all the trouble. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick — whose shared wings picked up the unmistakable odor of melting wax after their admirable debut, Zombieland — set up parameters and then blithely ignore them whenever it suits them. The Martian can survive for extended stretches in the airlessness of outer space, for example, but is desperately chasing oxygen a few scenes later. When a story ventures into the fantastic, it’s vitally important that it set and follow its own rules.
Perhaps the only thing more problematic than the flimsy rigors of the film’s logic is the gaping hollowness of the characters. None of the actors seems to know quite what to do, leaving them playing scenes in desperate, faulty swings at plausibility. After his first introduction to the most gruesome of horrors the captured creature can deliver, Jake Gyllenhaal spits out a curse word with all the rattled agitation of a man who’s just let a fragile wineglass topple to the unforgiving linoleum of the kitchen floor. That’s a memorable acting infraction, but hardly the sole one or the most grievous. The assembled cast barely makes an impression, save for Ryan Reynolds, who mostly sticks in the memory because he notably demonstrates how his trademark jabbering impression of a funny guy — he delivers lines in the cadence of comedy without the barest inkling of wit — can be plugged into any scenario.
Espinosa films it all with a flailing artlessness. Some sequences are borderline incoherent and others are marred by repetitive portentousness. He tries to kick off the movie with a swooping, continuous shot that exploits the fluidity of a gravity-free environment, but he only serves to accentuate the skill of Alfonso Cuarón’s similar cinematic gamesmanship at the beginning of Gravity. That might be the defining trait of the film. It keeps calling to mind inspired predecessors and showing how drab and dismal a high-concept, low-intellect pretender can be. That’s Life.