Of all the movies over the years that have brazenly ripped off Alien, Life sure is one of them. At least it has this going on in its favor: it cost more than a lot of its brethren, and so it looks shinier and sleeker. If there are to be no inventive moments and no thrills that aren't at least secondhand, we can at least have some tolerably good spectacle.

The film takes up with a six-person crew on the International Space Station, far enough into the future that unmanned round-trip probe missions to Mars have become a practical reality. It is in fact one of these, Pilgrim 7, whose successful retrieval kicks off Life's plot. For Pilgrim 7 has a particularly exciting sample on it: a large single-celled organism of extra-terrestrial origin. And when it is nursed back into active life after untold æons of hibernation by ISS exobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), it is a moment of great celebration on the station and around the world (the cut from the positive identification of the organism to the film's title is an entirely satisfying "You are watching an Exciting Popcorn Movie" gesture, I will admit).

Naturally, we know better (though, honestly, if you wandered into the film without having caught any of its ad campaign or heard anything about its plot, there's next to no foreshadowing that this is going anywhere close to horror), and as Derry starts showing off to the rest of the crew - Commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), medical officer Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), quarantine officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), systems engineer Sho Murakami (Sanada Hiroyuki, providing a direct link back to Sunshine, one of the films Life most directly resembles), and flight engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) - it's clear that this little miracle alien baby is developing too damn fast, and with too much curiosity, for what appears to be a space amoeba.

At which point, let us pause. Remember how the entire cast of Prometheus (an Alien rip-off that was also an Alien prequel, so it's okay) was made up of idiot scientists making the worst possible decisions at every moment, and this is all the reason many people needed to declare it a disaster of a movie? Prometheus looks like an insufferably logical piece of social realism compared to Life, which might very well have the dumbest collection of degree-holding individuals in the history of American science fiction. From the instant that Derry starts playing with the previously unknown Martian life form like a six-year-old who discovered Silly Putty for the first time, Life's every last plot development hinges on avowed geniuses - when Adams claims that at least five other living human beings share his skill set, this is presented as a sign of his unabashed humility - making the decision which will self-evidently result in the worst possible outcome.

Anyway, the thing - named "Calvin" by the children of Calvin Coolidge Elementary in New York, because bullshit PR moves still exist in this future; the wonder is that screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick didn't go with "Marsy McMarsface" - manages to strangle Derry's hand into a limp, broken scrap of puffy skin and mangled bones, and from there escapes its enclosure to eat a lab rat, and after that, we're off to the races. Apparently with no more intention than a hungry animal going after the nearest likely-looking prey, Calvin is able to constantly outwit the six ISS crew members and on multiple separate occasions almost send itself hurtling towards Earth's surface, there to devour all of humanity.

I'm being snitty, but in the well-stocked annals of "basically Alien, but way worse", Life generally comes close to being watchable. Crap name notwithstanding (even the characters seem embarrass to keep calling it "Calvin"), the alien life form is a genuinely interesting creation, more The Blob than carnivorous monster, at least for most of the running time. And the ISS - which through some fancy screenwritin' has grown a bit more cavernous and theatrical than the actual ISS, but let's not fault a movie for being a movie - makes for an excellent horror movie setting, the blandly functional austerity of the government-issued equipment standing in stark contrast to the florid slasher-style body count action.

Where it all falls apart is, I guess, in being the least bit entertaining, or the least bit intelligent. The big problem is that the filmmakers apparently decided that they'd differentiate themselves from the usual outer space terror picture by having more finely-drawn, well-developed characters. Proper grown-ups with grown-up concerns, which would remain in the forefront of their minds even as Calvin ran amuck. The problem is that Life splits the difference in the worst possible way. The character drama is given too much emphasis for the film to function as an actual slasher horror picture; there's a lot of sullenness and pensiveness getting in the way of the bumps and bangs of a good ol' haunted spaceship picture. And this would be fine and all, except that the characters are thin ciphers, not nearly interesting enough to support the re-conception of the film as a character drama instead of a horror thriller. Only Derry, on paper, has enough of a distinct personality to feel like we understand what makes him tick; only Ferguson, of the cast, is digging in deep enough to feel like she's actually playing a character and not just enacting a bunch of predigested character traits (though Bakare is a not-too-distant second place). The rest of the characters - Murakami particularly, and Sanada's hapless performance, trapped by the film's most indistinct smudge of a role - are all so much cannon fodder.

I'm being a bit harsh, no doubt. It's witless and shallow, but as genre pictures go, Life isn't so bad; mostly it's just plain and direct, just like its yawning, functional title. Director Daniel Espinosa and editors Mary Jo Markey (a J.J. Abrams lifer) and Frances Parker keep the pace clicking along at a steadily escalating speed; Seamus McGarvey shoots everything with an appropriately gloomy cast that he manages to make feel authentic to the location, and not just the caprice of a horror movie cinematographer. And if nobody but Ferguson is actually good, at least nobody is actually bad, though Gyllenhaal is being unacceptably lazy in playing what comes closest to the film's leading role.

It's... there. It's a perfectly functional movie with not the smallest trace of its own personality, unless "apocalyptically stupid" is a personality trait. Still and all, it's harmless, and far be it from me to shoo anybody away from a space monster movie. There are hardly any of them made with this kind of budget and these kinds of special effects, and even if the film is almost entirely an exercise in irrelevance, at least it's not boring on top of it.