At the center of the new sci-fi thriller “Life,” there’s a galling mystery. Penned by the irreverent and energetic screenwriting team of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Zombieland,” “Deadpool,”) featuring a compelling premise of a ravenous alien running wild on a sprawling spaceship, and studded with charismatic stars like Jake Gyllenhaal,Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds, and bolstered by a big budget for special effects, it’s absolutely confounding that this movie is so, so very boring.
Part of the problem is in the way Espinosa spends the intro of the film not acquainting us with the characters, but instead executing a dizzying long take that spins and follows the crew as they bob about the ship. It’s neat — but makes these floating scientists hard to follow, and who they are is an afterthought as the film never bothers to bring much more life to them. Reynolds does his whole high-energy jackass thing, playing like Deadpool toned down several notches, and he’s briefly fun. But as this elegant alien — who looks like a cross between a squid and a venus flytrap — rips through the crew, it’s harder and harder to find any defining characteristics to them beyond their jobs. This one’s the CDC rep. This one’s the pilot. This one’s the captain. Yet they are all noble and self-sacrificing to the point that each feels entirely interchangeable.
That’s not to say the cast isn’t giving their all; it’s just they have so little to work with. Displaying an easy fortitude, Olga Dihovichnaya plays the captain of this international space station that’s intercepted a dirt sample from Mars containing single-cell organism all-too-willing to evolve and conquer. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but manages to admirably shift from calm to nobly terrified. Ferguson (the scene-stealing spy of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”) sees her screen presence squandered in a role that’s more concerned with chasing her around uniform hallways than giving her any depth. Ariyon Bakar and Hiroyuki Sanada are both granted little moments of backstory, one involving his struggles in a wheelchair, the other the birth of his child, but that’s where their characterizations begin and end. Gyllenhaal is nearly heartbreaking, caterwauling in grief and rage as both his friends and his dream of space glory is exploded with one fatality after another. But as I’ve complained about countless horror flicks, if you don’t give me characters to care about, the atrocities and violence on display feels theoretical and distant instead of immediate and primal. And so, this compelling ensemble cast is wasted.
To his credit, Espinosa displays some skills with “Life.” The film’s chilly aesthetic and cool color palette emphasize how this team is alone in their battle against a merciless space monster. The story’s patient pacing seems to be pulling more from “2001: A Space Odyssey” than “Alien.” It’s a bold move, but Espinosa is no Kubrick. The tone attempts to scratch at human over surreal, so the gambit doesn’t pay off. Again, the opening long shot is clearly Espinosa showing off, but it’s impossible to appreciate while the audience is trying to get its bearings, and when he fumbles the emotional life of “Life” so atrociously.
I’m actually angry how lame this movie turned out to be. Reese and Wernick’s monster was not the clearly “lethal from the jump” Xenomorph of “Alien,” but something deceptively simple, all muscle and brain, and beautiful, seemingly composed of iridescent blue and violet gels. This implies a sophistication of the horror trope of “trapped on a spaceship with a man-eating E.T.,” and I’m sure this is what had the cast so eager to shoot a movie with a zero-gravity setting demanding they spend weeks in uncomfortable suspension. But Espinosa seems so caught up in the monster’s look — which is a dazzling mix of lovely and horrific — and the film’s heavy atmosphere that he suffocates the characters who could have made it thrive. Simply put, “Life” is lifeless.