“Derivative” is a word that has never once been used on this website to describe or critique a movie (I checked).  For those light on their lingo, it is an adjective meaning “not original” or “secondary.”  Well, today’s the day that changes.  Every aspect about Daniel Espinosa’s science fiction thriller feels derivative.  There’s is certainly fun to be had in “Life,” fun you’ve had before or fun limited by missed opportunities to do something surprising or different.

In the not-too-distant future, NASA’s Pilgrim lander is returning from its months-long journey back from Mars carrying a potentially historic deep core soil sample.  The multi-national crew of the International Space Station is tasked with capturing the probe and conducting experiments in its quarantined confines above Earth.  Their lead scientist, exobiologist Hugh Derry (British TV star Aryion Bakare), discovers dormant unicellular protozoa within the soil.  Hugh momentously reanimates the specimen proving the existence and capability of life on other planets, breakthrough news celebrated around the world.

The new life form, dubbed Calvin by some lucky/unlucky elementary students, begins to grow and evolve exponentially in containment, showing reactionary behaviors and survival-seeking intelligence.  Sure enough, something won’t take to kindly to being contained and the usual everything-that-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong trajectory takes over, set to Jon Ekstrand’s pounding musical score.  If protocols and firewalls cannot contain the threat, more than six overmatched souls on the ISS are in trouble as they shed zero gravity globules of blood and tears.

Ryan Reynolds is the headliner here that most people are coming to see.  He is reteaming with his “Safe House” director Daniel Espinosa and two of his “Deadpool” writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.  He’s the one shining (completely clothed, sorry ladies) personality in the ensemble, and the film is a strained mess when his flippant candor goes away.  His A-list pairing with Jake Gyllenhaal squanders massive potential.  Watch Ryan and Jake carry on and bust each other’s balls in press junket footage for the promotion of this film.  Where was that?  Gyllenhaal always gives 110% into his roles and finds himself reduced to a sullen hero archetype.  I’m not saying “Life” had to be “21 Jump Street in the Cosmos,” but even 10% of that PR camaraderie on display could have done this film a world of good.

Instead, the rest of the cast, led sternly by “Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation” star Rebecca Ferguson, tune themselves to ultra-serious and sap away any possible zeal.  We are left with dialogue filled by screamed expletives of agony and permanently grave line readings, including an awful recitation of Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon” bedtime story that will bury your head in your hands.  The deft international casting of Bakare, Hiroyuki Sanada (back in the space meat grinder 10 years after “Sunshine”), and Olga Dihovichnaya (“House of Others”) is appreciated yet their talents are grossly underutilized.  

Admittedly though, you’ve seen bits and pieces of this human buffet and interstellar peril before in the likes of superior films like “Alien,” “Gravity,” and more.  To its credit, the dour tone frames “Life” as a straight-shooting creature feature trading camp for tension and thrills, plenty of which elicit sly pleasures.  Nonetheless, what separates the spectacular from the mediocre in this science fiction subgenre is the monster and the creative uses by which it is employed.  Calvin may do preposterously incredible things at times and is granted a dynamite twist ending, but it is a virtually colorless, faceless, ambiguous, and forgettable nemesis in the silver screen pantheon of bugs, blobs, and xenomorphs.

LESSON #1: LEAVE ALIEN LIFE ALONE ON OTHER PLANETS-- Finding the inert evidence of unicellular organisms should have been enough.  Cool find, dude!  Hooray, science!  Snap a picture, take some measurements, write your dissertation, and stick it in school textbooks.  Don’t bring it home and don’t try to bring the thing that had its chance to live back to life!  Reynold’s character even calls out an unheeded “that’s some serious ‘Re-Animator’ s--t” warning and his peers still take the “Frankenstein” and “Jurassic Park” routes.  That’s one of many mistakes that receive the next blanket life lesson.

LESSON #2: MOVIE SCIENTISTS MAKE TERRIBLE DECISIONS-- Movie scientists make movie mistakes.  Just once, I want to watch a movie like “Life” in a theater full of actual biologists, pilots, physicists, and astronauts solely to watch them facepalm over and over again while throwing popcorn at the screen.  I do the same myself with teacher films.  CinemaSins is going to have a field day with this film, and I could fill a chalkboards with cliched choices not to make in the same scenario.