Hey, “Life.” 1979 called. It wants its alien-invasion movie back.
“Life” so echoes Ridley Scott’s 38-year-old claustrophobic science-fiction classic “Alien,” in which a group of space travelers is under attack from a merciless invasive being, that it can only pale by comparison. But, taken on its own creature-feature terms, “Life” has enough taut moments — especially in its first half — to make it tensely diverting, though not particularly memorable in the long run.
“Life” is set on an international space station tasked with collecting and studying samples from the surface of Mars. The time is somewhere in the near future — near enough that the crew makes jokes about the 1985 cult horror film “Re-Animator” and ABC-TV’s David Muir hasn’t aged a day, appearing to still be a network-news anchor. But it’s far enough in the future that the human race is digging around on Mars.
As is usually the case in movies like this, the six-person crew has a jokey camaraderie, though, underneath it all, all have their own issues.
Hugh (Ariyon Bakare, “Rogue One”) is a brilliant scientist still coming to terms with the fact that he’s paraplegic. Roy (Ryan Reynolds) is the comedian who uses humor to mask other emotions. David (Jake Gyllenhaal) likes being in space because it means he doesn’t have to deal with the bulk of the human race on Earth. Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada, “The Wolverine”) wants to get home to see his newborn son. Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation”) is by the book, perhaps to a fault. Russian Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya, “House of Others”) is less fleshed out but does add a splash of U.S.-Russian cooperation.
Hugh discovers that, scooped up amid the dirt from the red planet, is what he believes is a single-cell organism in stasis. He prods it back to life and everyone on board is giddy over the fact that they’re the first to come across life not born on Earth. They’re so happy about their discovery that they give it a name: Calvin.
But that joy soon turns to fear as their “newborn” begins to grow ... and grow. And, like many growing children, he’s hungry.
After Calvin escapes the lab, “Life” adroitly taps into the fear of having something wild loose in your living quarters and not being able to flush it out. It’s bad enough if it’s a roach, rat or raccoon, it’s something else again if it’s an intelligent, octopuslike alien that gorges itself on human flesh.
For all of the unoriginality of “Life,” these early moments — and at least one of the creatively staged deaths — are effectively unnerving. Director Daniel Espinosa (“Child 44,” “Safe House”), working from a script by the duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Deadpool,” “Zombieland”), bypasses the expected with something surprising that happens to a character relatively early on.
However, “Life” becomes more predictable as it wears down to a finale that can be seen from across the galaxy. Reynolds does have a few funny lines, but Reese and Wernick — known for meshing comedy and action — may have been loathe to inject more humor as they seem to have wanted to pen a scary, straight-ahead monster movie.
That’s an admirable goal but, with “Life,” they don’t always reach it. In space, no one can hear you scream — or yawn.
☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson
Rated: R (strong language, sci-fi violence and terror)
Running time: 103 min.