- Rebecca Ferguson is great, but she's no Ellen Ripley.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: There's a small crew of astronauts on the International Space Station who obtain a sample which definitively proves the existence of life beyond Earth. This single-cell organism grows into a pulsating, writhing glob resembling translucent seaweed, and it displays intelligence, curiosity and, eventually, malevolence. And once it escapes captivity — because you just know it's going to break free — it starts attacking the astronauts and consuming them from the inside out, getting zero-gravity blood everywhere.
That sounds an awful lot like Alien, though it's actually the setup for the new, claustrophobic creature feature Life, which often blurs the line between homage and rip-off. Perhaps there are only so many new things you can do with the space-monster-gets-loose-on-ship premise, but the movie has not-so-faint echoes of Ridley Scott's 1979 horror masterpiece right from the get-go; even the font on its opening title card is shamelessly borrowed. (You might also notice similarities with Gravity, The Abyss, Event Horizon, Danny Boyle's Sunshine and Michael Crichton's Sphere.)
Of course, it's possible to cobble together a compelling genre film out of spare parts, and this one does manufacture a couple of well-crafted sequences of suspense. But Life apparently didn't learn the most important lesson of Alien, which is that less is more when it comes to creepy-crawly creatures.
At first, we only catch glimpses of the monster, nicknamed Calvin, as it slithers through vents and disappears into tight spaces. But with each new victim, Calvin gets larger, morphing into a tentacled creature with an insect-like head, and we get to see an awful lot of it. Calvin's not a particularly interesting special-effects creation, nor is it all that scary, and the film's third act consists almost entirely of the characters furiously air-swimming through narrow corridors and slamming airlock doors before Calvin can eat them.
Calvin also displays varying degrees of cleverness: It's apparently smart enough to shut down the ship's outgoing communication system, but a later plot point requires it to be distracted by bright lights, like some kind of flesh-eating moth.
I realize I haven't yet mentioned any of the actors in Life — the three biggest names in the cast are Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson — and that's because they're barely distinguishable from one another. One is stern, another is a bit of a wisecracker, and yet another is a little more stern than the other stern one. They're merely generic pop-up targets for the monster to knock down whenever they make the mistake of wandering off alone.
Life was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the guys behind the script for Deadpool, and their dialogue offers fleeting glimpses of their pop culture savvy, though there's hardly enough of it. When Reynolds, for instance, makes a passing reference to the '80s cult classic Re-Animator, I couldn't help but wonder if any of these astronauts had actually seen Alien, because if they had, they probably wouldn't be in this mess in the first place. ♦