Ridley Scott's upcoming Alien: Covenant—the sixth film devoted to the celebrated space monster—is due out on May 19. For those who want an Alien fix right now, though—who just can't wait—please try a little harder to hold on. Despite its robust cast (featuring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal), the rousingly titled Life is an uncalled-for Alien rip—effective in a rote way, with a few icky shocks, but probably not exactly what you seek.
Stop me if you've heard this before (more or less). A team of space explorers discovers a mysterious organism in a cargo of red soil from Mars. One of the crew—the traditional mush-minded science guy (Ariyon Bakare)—hails this discovery as "the first incontrovertible proof of life beyond Earth." He also announces that "We're going to learn so much about life." Much more than he suspects, of course.
Once the predacious visitor escapes captivity in the ship's lab, the crew members—all big-brain exobiologists and epidemiologists—suddenly come down with a collective case of the stupids. As the alien grows and grows, from a tiny Groot-like cuteness in the beginning to its final, squid-like manifestation as a sort of giant sushi special, the crew does just about everything wrong. No sooner do they manage to trap the monster in some secure area than they turn around and let it back in again. And again.
Throughout all this, Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (helmer of the Denzel Washington feature Safe House) sprinkles the proceedings with visual quotes from the Alien universe: a tentacle slithering into view behind an unsuspecting character's back, a profile shot of one character coming face to face with the alien interloper. More usefully, Espinosa also raids the Gravity effects closet for complex scenes of on-board weightlessness. (These couldn't have been easy to do, and the director does them well.)
The picture offers a nice line in gruesome doings—a character's hand being crushed into a stump, a very large tentacle writhing out of another character's throat. What's missing, though—and it was a large part of what made the 1979 Alien so involving—is vivid character details: the eerie unflappability of Ian Holme's android science officer, the borderline hysteria of Veronica Cartwright's navigator, the blue-collar wisecracking of Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton as the ship's engineers. Here, while the six lead actors—including Rebecca Ferguson, Olga Dihovichnaya, and Hiroyuki Sanada (an alumnus of a much more stylish space movie, Danny Boyle's Sunshine)—are solid, their characters are a little colorless. Even Reynolds, who gets a couple of sharp lines from script-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the team that also wrote Deadpool), barely has time to register in this generally humorless film. And while Gyllenhaal brings movie-star heft to his role, his contemplative performance—especially in a scene of childhood reminiscence—sometimes seems beamed in from another picture.
Life is a serviceable space thriller, largely derivative and agreeably unapologetric about it. What you see is all that you get—the movie doesn't linger in the mind. It's no Alien, but how many sci-fi movies have ever been? Even in the long-running Alien franchise.