Jake Gyllenhaal Goes To Waste In Musty, Unintelligent "Life"

How do you pay tribute to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic “Alien” while breathing fresh air into a long-collapsed narrative lung? In the case of Daniel Espinosa’s “Life,” you don’t. The “Safe House” director and “Deadpool” writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have merely aped “Alien” beat for beat, yielding a subpar creature feature with delusions of grandeur and a cheat of a twist ending. Graphic violence enacted by an E.T. has rarely been so boring.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nightcrawler”), Rebecca Ferguson (“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”), and Ryan Reynolds (“Self/less”), the picture follows a sextet of astronauts aboard the International Space Station as they capture and examine a returning Martian soil sample. It turns out that the sample contains extraterrestrial life: a viscous glob that, at the provocation of a crew member, mutates into a phallic, bloodthirsty monster.

The cosmonauts are virtually interchangeable, little more than antipasti served up for the alien (named Calvin by earthbound schoolchildren when it was but a wee lump). Erudite chatter among the crew turns into stupid risk-taking (Why not give this obviously volatile organism a jolt of electricity?), which turns into several bloody deaths. The first fatality might come as a surprise to audience members until they realize just how calculated of a surprise it is, done to give an air of unpredictability to an otherwise staunchly predictable piece of sci-fi.

Of the visibly apathetic cast, Gyllenhaal is most out of his element. Known for his impeccable taste in projects and consistently bullish performances, the actor’s involvement here is baffling. Why this project? Why this cipher of a character? His senior medical officer Dr. Jordan proves a lifeless proxy for the audience, spending large chunks of time off screen in favor of Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada as engineer Sho Murakami and black British actor Ariyon Bakare as biologist Hugh Derry, each doing much more to push the narrative forward than the trio of white faces on the film’s one-sheet.

Ferguson’s Dr. Miranda North might be the biggest blank of all, given to literally floating in and out of scenes in avoidance of Calvin – and not much else. To Ferguson’s credit, she’s able keep a straight face through Gyllenhaal’s climactic, deadly serious reading of children’s picture book Goodnight Moon, from which the solution to their potentially apocalyptic predicament is derived.

This all adds up to a monster movie reminiscent of poorly received Stephen King adaptation “Dreamcatcher,” only not as endearingly convoluted and not half as fun; a redo of “Alien” with a mean reductive streak. In kicking their film off with the kind of stateliness that suggests prestige sci-fi (“2001: A Space Odyssey”), Espinosa and his writers’ eventual creature feature stands no chance. Such a graceless segue between the two, without so much as a wink at the audience, absolutely murders any chance the movie might have had with fans of either genre.

Fans of the red stuff might go home happy – if they can stay awake between kills – but surely $60 million could have bought more than a few neat death scenes.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: March 24, 2017
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenwriters: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror)