Judging by its trailer, Life could be one of two things: either a moody, semi-intellectual think piece involving a space-station-bound, flight-suited crew wrestling with some tough decisions; or a dim-witted, sophomoric gremlin-o-rama with an EVIL ALIEN stalking a half-dozen astro-nots like so many slasher-film victims. Thanks to the liberal application of JFK voiceover, my bet was on the former.

Wrong. Life is a one-note B-movie with not much useful to say.

If you’re surprised, get in line. This film had a lot going for it. There’s a remarkable amount of talent here: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds star. Hiroyuki Sanada is aboard (splendid in Sunshine), and Olga Dihovichnaya and Ariyon Bakare round out the crew. Sure, Reynolds seems a tad too hotheaded and quippy for an astronaut –a little Deadpool-lite — and Gyllenhaal is a bit sullen, but everyone’s watchable. The special effects team did great work: the requisite floating fluids and weightless humans and space vistas all are beyond reproach. And Daniel Espinosa’s direction is serviceable, at least once you figure out Life is piling all its eggs in the jump-scare basket. So what’s the problem?

It’s dumb. And worse, so are the characters in it.

A brief aside: I once attended a workshop at the American Film Institute whose sole stated purpose was to teach screenwriting to scientists. (It was sponsored by the Air Force. Your tax dollars paid for this. I am not making this up.) For a week, about a dozen of us — including folks from NASA’s Mars program, professors, research physicians, aerospace engineers, and little old me — sat sequestered in the Hollywood hills learning, for instance, the three-act structure from the late Syd Field himself. I pitched a film to a DreamWorks producer. It was choice. Anyway, as you might guess, a popular topic of conversation among the participants was which films did science right. I remember a few winners: Primer, a clever time travel film, and Code 46. They’re not necessarily realistic, in scientific terms, but the people in them are. What matters to scientists (if you care) is not so much the underlying realism — we have no problem with the unknown! — but how characters interact with it. Sunshine, for instance, has a terrific scene in which the ship’s crew debates a course-change. Watch that scene and you’ll know how scientists think, and what a hard question based on incomplete data really looks like. The Martian and District 9, same idea. Even Interstellar, for all its crazy five-dimensional time-hopping ghost stuff, had a deep and satisfying thread of realism in this sense. Make the situation as crazy as you want, but give me rational characters responding to it.

Life seemed poised to deliver, too. But alas, what we get is 2017’s answer to a gremlin on the wing, in a space station staffed by careless reactive saps who break everything they touch and never ask a smart question. (Follow their lead in this, mind you, because if you ask questions yourself you’ll discover some substantial, and wholly avoidable, plot holes. I won’t spoil them here.)

This is also sci-fi for Trump’s America, a troubling distillation of our heightened antipathy for other living beings, a rude little North Star guiding would-be xenophobes safely away from anything new or different or foreign. Different is bad. New is dangerous. Foreign is scary. Hate is healthy. Here we have an entire film dedicated to our first contact with a novel life form, and its key messages are (1) y’all shoulda been more paranoid, (2) y’all shoulda built that wall, and (3) y’all are fucked.

And you know, I could handle all that for a couple hours if the scientists weren’t such dopes, if the story made sense on its own terms, and if this movie was a bit more honest about what it really is.

It’s not a bad movie. Manage your expectations and it’s a fun, occasionally scary, fairly mindless space horror. I’m just disappointed. I went in expecting Sunshine, and got Mission to Mars.

From the guys who wrote Deadpool, I expected more.

Haus Verdict: Top-shelf talent hiding a discount-bin thriller. Fine for what it is–just know what you’re getting. 

Life opens Friday, March 24. 

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