A monster movie set on the International Space Station, scripted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wenick (Deadpool, Zombieland) without their usual snark – but with an odd pompous streak that lands it in the uncomfortable category of self-important space opera with Mission to Mars and Prometheus. The title alone is offputtingly solemn – and has furthermore a) been used in living memory for an Eddie Murphy prison comedy and that film about James Dean being photographed and b) is a pain to google. What’s wrong with calling a movie Evil Martian Starfish? Or, indeed, The Green Slime – since this feels a lot like an update of the 1968 space opera about protoplasm aliens invading a space station.
Everything about the film – directed by Daniel Espinosa (Child 44, the Snabba Cash films) – feels like a second- or third-choice. The six-man crew (don’t get attached to any of them) of the ISS are all played by welcome performers, but giving the four men token character beats (war trauma for Jake Gyllenhaal, a disability on Earth overcome in zero gee for Ariyon Bakare, a newborn child back home for Horoyuki Sanada, having a Ryan Reynolds mouth Ryan Reynolds) while the two women have to get by on accents establishing them as British (Rebecca Ferguson) or Russian (Olga Dihovichnaya) is as far as the film goes making us care about any of them. In contrast, the crew of Alien – an inescapable comparison – were a grumpy load of bastards but we got easily caught up in their lives during the crisis. The three principles not on the poster are all more interesting than the ones featured – with the wrong names written above their faces; Dihovichnaya and Bakare in particular are better than the material. Naoko Mori (Topsy-Turvy, Torchwood) has a tiny bit-part as the Japanese astronaut’s wife.
A soil sample from Mars is brought aboard the ISS and experimented on – it grows from a single cell into a tough critter which crushes bones by shaking hands in the glove-box, invents tools to escape the laboratory, and starts killing its way through the cast in a way that suggests doom to humankind if it ever gets to Earth. The dwindling band of astronauts get into and out of spacesuits, go EVA, unscrew things, fix things, play with flamethrowers and ‘oxygen candles’ and try pretty much everything except stamping on the thing with hobnailed boots (advised). If there’s an original idea here, it’s one proposed but rejected for Supernova – a 2000 film as forgotten now as Life is likely to be in seventeen years – in that there’s no artificial gravity here so the whole movie involves floating. There’s a germ of a good idea in the situation of Derry (Bakare), who escapes from a wheelchair by becoming an astronaut – and the best, nastiest idea here involves the fact that he’s so accustomed to his condition that he’s forgotten he has no feeling in his legs (guess what’s wrapped round his knee).
As an expensive drive-in movie, it has some appeal – even the soundbyte character bits are almost endearingly naff, and I’m happy to admit that I enjoy watching astronauts zoom about tunnels with monsters chasing them and even welcome cliches like the self-sacrificing leader willingly dying (upside-down, drowning in coolant inside a spacesuit) and drifting off in a (vain) attempt to save the day (Tim Robbins did something similar in Mission to Mars) and the initially cute critter (called Calvin, after Calvin Coolidge High School – who won a competition to name it, though in their usual mood, the scriptwriters might have had the astronauts menaced by Alieny McAlienface) which develops into a persistent tentacle-brain-muscle monster. Oh, and relatively new to the shaky A-list Ferguson – literally floating here before better things come along – gets one terrific ‘scream queen’ moment.