Jake Gyllenhaal is scared in ‘Life.’ If he was smart, he’d be scared of ‘Life’
In space, no one can hear you butt in.
I know, because in “Life,” the new sci-fi epic, during a particularly self-consciously sad moment, star Jake Gyllenhaal picked up a copy of “Goodnight, Moon.” Forlornly, he opened it up. “Don’t read it,” I warned him from my third-row seat. “Please, don’t read it!”
But did he listen?
Well, so maybe he won’t hear my grumbles about his movie, either, a clumsy recycling of “Alien.” Which, considering that movie cleverly itself repurposed some plot points from the old and marvelously cheesy “It! The Terror From Beyond Space,” makes it doubly familiar.
You know the story – a small, ragtag bunch of astronauts are doing experiments when they discover they’ve actually brought an alien lifeform onboard. It’s a cute little slumbering paramecium at first. But then one scientist decides to wake it up.
The rest of the picture trots out the usual claustrophobic thrills, as the now gigantic – and starving – invertebrate starts chasing our heroes up and down narrow passageways, as they keep shouting and slamming airlocks behind them.
Only to find they’ve locked themselves in with the cranky calamari who now wants to suck face with a vengeance.
It’s a tense little idea for a movie, as many movies have found, but for the idea to work it needs a director with a ruthless sense of staging. The tension only grows if we know exactly how the ship is laid out. The scares build on our own, mental blueprints.
But director Daniel Espinosa has all the architectural understanding of a cockroach caught in the bathroom light.
He found a career in Sweden directing aimlessly amped-up thrillers, then used them as a calling card to move on to English-language films like “Safe House” and “Child 44.” The new films didn’t make much sense either, relying on a jumble of too-brief closeups and too-blurry action.
In other words, just what Hollywood was looking for.
Now turned loose in weightless space, Espinosa loses even that minimal grasp of visual logic. Never mind being able to tell left from right onscreen; he won’t let us tell up from down. He does, however, retain his affection for plots that don’t make sense.
I have always loved genre films, and I am willing to grant them One Impossible Leap of Faith. So, ask me to believe in a creature that can lie dormant for untold eons, then come to life, grow at a fantastic rate and survive even the frozen airless waste of deep space?
Ask me to believe that creature is also intelligent enough to immediately know how to use tools, maneuver around the ship’s air ducts, and sabotage all communication links with Earth? Sorry, Wonderland’s Alice may have set herself to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but I reach my limit a lot quicker.
The cast consists of a mix of unknowns, slightly-knowns and stars, and their success is as varied as their backgrounds. Making the least impression is Ryan Reynolds, trying to coast by on smirks and shoe-button twinkles (I liked him a lot better under the Deadpool mask); making the most is Gyllenhaal, playing that tightly-wound loner.
The most emotional part goes to Rebecca Ferguson of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” playing the medical officer who knows that their mission has a secret “signed agreement.” (Another pilfer from “Alien,” or maybe “2001” – every space mission has a secret mission even most of the astronauts don’t know.)
She’s fine, and there are two terrific scenes — the alien’s attack on a naive, “think-of-the-things-it-can-teach-us” scientist (every sci-fi movie’s gotta have one), and a tense spacewalk as a crew member tries to repair the communications equipment.
But the rest of the movie is just pro forma – running, panting, lethal face-plantings. And as tricky as the film’s editing gets, it can’t keep us from guessing the “twist” long before the movie delivers what it naively believes is a big surprise ending.
Beam us up, Scotty — there’s no intelligent life here.
Ratings note: The film contains violence, gore and strong language.