'Life': Film Review | SXSW 2017

A run-of-the-mill killer-alien pic unlikely to make a dent in the audience for 'Alien: Covenant.'

A Mars probe brings back lethal organisms in Daniel Espinosa's space-horror flick.

An Alien-derived creature feature that would be serviceable (if underwhelming) under ordinary circumstances, Daniel Espinosa's Life faces the unenviable prospect of emerging less than two months before Ridley Scott's new chapter in that franchise. Like its eponymous carbon-based critter, which spends most of the movie rushing from one corner of a space station to another as our heroes try to starve it of oxygen, the movie may suffocate in the anticipatory atmosphere surrounding Alien: Covenant, and the PR boost from this unmerited closing-night SXSW slot shouldn't help much. Insatiable genre fans who do buy a ticket will likely send lukewarm responses back to the wait-and-see crowd.

Like Scott's original film, this is an ensemble affair whose cast of characters dwindles in number at a steady clip. Surprisingly, the best-known members of its cast are not necessarily MVPs: Even if they may have more to do, A-listers Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds register no more solidly as distinct characters than, say, Ariyon Bakare's Hugh Derry, the scientist who makes first contact with the alien, and soon regrets it.

Derry and company are manning the International Space Station when a probe returns from Mars with soil samples. Under the microscope, Derry finds a single cell resembling life as we know it, and in a scene containing perhaps the movie's only joke, he brings that cell to life with some glucose. (The dearth of wit is surprising, and saddening, given that screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick co-wrote both Deadpool and Zombieland.) He quickly observes, as the cell replicates, that each unit seems capable of all body functions, meaning that the full-grown organism might be "all-muscle, all-brain, all-eye" — an intriguing notion that is never exploited once we meet the full-grown organism a few scenes later, and which is even contradicted when the critter grows what seems to be a face.

The movie wastes little time watching as this thing grows, escaping its petri dish in a (literally and figuratively) gripping action scene. Before long, it has become a starfish-shaped jelly creature, and has claimed its first victim. Unfortunately, the trusting people of Earth, before sensing its capacity for mayhem, have given it a name: Calvin. Try shouting "Calvin's going to find a way through the airlock!" with a straight face, and you'll understand what this cast is up against.

As it happens, Calvin is much better with airlocks and other unlikely access points than a newly hatched life form has any right to be. He's also hardy, surviving longish spells in a vacuum when the humans manage to get him outside of the space station. "Calvin knows exactly what he's doing ... he's getting smarter," one astronaut observes. Indeed. He's so smart that the filmmakers treat him like a slasher-flick boogeyman, providing viewers a few jelly-distorted POV shots in which he follows trails of human blood toward his prey. (As with so many sci-fi predators and so few in the real world, Calvin likes to enter his victims through their mouths instead of just taking a bite.)

The picture struggles to find a satisfying rhythm as the members of this multinational, co-ed team get slooshed up by Calvin or suffer related lethal mishaps. Each dies valiantly; few enjoy a moment of glory. And then there were two — heroes whose names won't be revealed here, who face that familiar challenge: Destroy this vessel before its extraterrestrial inhabitant can make its way to the blue planet below. Genre fans won't be too shocked by the way that plays out. But most would be quite surprised if Life's hints at a sequel lead to even a single spinoff, much less the decades-long afterlife enjoyed by Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon's versatile face-hugger.

Production company: Skydance
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenwriters: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn
Executive producers: Don Granger, Vicki Dee Rock
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Production designer: Nigel Phelps
Costume designer: Jenny Beavan
Editors: Frances Parker, Mary Jo Markey
Composer: Jon Ekstrand
Venue: South by Southwest (Headliners)

Rated R, 102 minutes