"Life," the new Daniel Espinozo-directed sci-fi thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, consists wrought of three-quarters parts "Alien," one-quarter part "Gravity," a jigger of "Europa Report," and a barrel of the wrong kind of laughs.
Whereas "Alien" was a haunted house in space, though, and "Gravity" an orbital paean to the relentless anxieties of our age, "Life" is a monster movie -- the kind that usually finds a backwoods community menaced by something evil and alien that's crashed down in either a UFO or a meteorite. Just to shake things up, the filmmakers have relocated the action to the International Space Station, some time in the not-too-distant future. A returning robotic probe, laden with Martian soil samples, suffers damage from space debris; the ISS crew grab hold of the hurtling probe with a huge mechanical arm; then one of the station's researchers, Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) starts sifting through the samples looking for any evidence of life., What he finds is a long-dormant single-celled organism that soon grows into colony of cells, then a neural network, and finally a scrappy, ravenous space octopus of sorts -- a creature capable of strategy and tool use, and hungry for human blood.
So far, so trite. We know the alien critter is going to have a bad attitude and a hankering for astronaut flesh. We know it's going to have to make its way out of isolation -- first its terrarium, then the science lab -- and we have a pretty good idea that it's going to commence picking of the crew one by one. It's in the creature's DNA, because it's also in the genre's DNA.
Given the material, there are only so many narrative paths the movie can take, none of them holding many surprises. Even so, the writers -- Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick -- try to give us a few novelties. (Sadly, scientific accuracy is far from one of them.) The nature of the subject matter, however, dictates that the crew make some stupid choices and, on top of that, are beset by random happenstance, which keeps dealing them bad breaks. The large cast -- plenty of victims! -- take the story seriously, even if their characters are underwritten, sketched out in broad strokes; one is a new father, one is a paraplegic (and so much freer in zero-G than he is on Earth), and another has stayed on the ISS for over a year simply because he can't stand the idea of going back to Earth with its "eight billion motherfuckers." (As for the women, forget it; there's not a well-written female character in the lot, though there is one with a military secret to spill at a key moment.)
The creature, at least, is well rendered, the work of some talented CGI effects people. Sporting fluttering flaps along with its tentacles, it looks like an undersea creature; effortlessly swing through the space station's atmosphere and, when it encounters a solid surface, skittering around like a fast, energetic varmint. The crew theorize that this being belongs to a species that could once have been an apex predator on Mars, but given its dependence on oxygen, you have to wonder; after all, the Martian atmosphere, even when it was far more substantial and allowed planetary oceans to exist, was always primarily carbon dioxide. Oxygen should poison the thing -- but, oh well, chalk the lost narrative opportunities there to the kind of streamlining and narrative simplification that major sci-fi movies rely on.
This weightless endeavor has some stylistic success: The opening shot, for instance, a long, complex, "Gravity"-esque tracking take that explores the ISS and its busily buzzing crew (along with a few odds and ends that, like the people, float around the place in a slightly harried manner). There are also suspenseful passages, and a bit of daring in how one of the film's major stars is the first to bite the dust and clock out early. (This might have been a bit of cleverness on the actor's part, come to think of it.) Espinosa, whose earlier films include "Safe House" and "Child 44," knows how to keep the action thrumming along.
But he doesn't' manage to keep the story on the tracks. There are sudden catastrophes, confusing sequences, and baffling twists that a better script could have made something of; what goes on here has a lazy, haphazard feel. Things don't get any less muddy as the film's climax approaches: The crew's desperate solution to the crisis is one you've been wondering about for half an hour by the time it arrives. It's not the gigawatt moment of clever strategy the film seems to want us to think it is. Other "major" story beats have arrived by then, and more follow, but none of them crystallize the story or feel like a genuine thrill. All of the film's plot twists are predictable, if not downright risible.
But there is a bright side: You can nap through about half the movie and wake up in time to be entertained, rather than annoyed. Actually paying attention and trying to make the film's fuzzy plot points string together, however, is a recipe for a more Earth-borne sort of disaster.