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Bald Bruce Willis, generically scowling in blue and red light in Cosmic Sin Photo: Saban Films

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Bruce Willis’ sci-fi action film Cosmic Sin is retro throwback cheese in all the wrong ways

It looks like an Armageddon-style fun time, and it isn’t

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Cosmic Sin is a movie measurable by its withouts. Without any sense of humor, adventure, or irony. Without any devotion to imagining an Earth that is tangibly different in 2524, the year the film is set. Without any effort at all exhibited by costar Bruce Willis, whose customary late-career lack of interest in his own film work reaches a new zenith here. And without nearly enough Frank Grillo! Our current B-movie king is the second floating head on this film’s poster, but that’s an unfortunate clue for how Grillo spends most of Cosmic Sin, which is isolated in space, away from all the other characters. Among an array of indeterminable filmmaking choices made by director Edward Drake, sidelining Grillo in favor of Willis might be the worst one.

Cosmic Sin seems like a return to the 1990s sci-fi B-movies that barely appeared in theaters before settling into their bespoke 11 p.m.-on-UPN timeslot. There’s an invading alien force, a disgraced general who is getting one more chance, myriad zany space effects, and a female scientist who’s revealed as being surprisingly busty. All those elements should be familiar to any of us who spent late nights consuming box-office bombs like 1995’s Screamers, 1996’s Space Truckers, or 1998’s Deep Rising.

But what Cosmic Sin lacks is either the tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that acknowledged the absurdity of these genre offerings, or the pointed irony and criticism of something like Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 masterpiece Starship Troopers. Science fiction has always been used to tell us uncomfortable truths about society and humanity: What do we value, and what do we fear? What do we want to control, and why? What is our place in the universe, and how do we react if we learn we aren’t alone?

None of this is to say that authors like Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, or Octavia Butler, or filmmakers like Lana and Lilly Wachowski and Denis Villeneuve, hold some kind of exclusivity over the genre because their work is more prestigious. There is still a lot of visceral fun to be had in movies that dare to dream big and manipulate sci-fi conventions toward original ideas, or that pull off a predictable narrative with confidence and verve. Neither of these is what Cosmic Sin does. Everything in it is familiar, but none of it is exciting, and even at only 88 minutes, it drags.

The premise is sort of a mishmash of science fiction and horror: Intertitles inform us that by the year 2524, Earth has spent nearly 500 years trying to colonize other planets. The colonization of Mars failed. The Alliance, which guides Earth’s interplanetary efforts, still rules over two other colonies on the planets Zafdie and Ellora. In 2519, when the planet Zafdie tried to secede, “Blood General” James Ford (Willis) dropped a Q-bomb on the “rebel colony.” (Oh, right: The movie uses the terms “quantum propulsion technology” and “tachyon interference” every time it wants to MacGuffin away something without really explaining it, so a “Q-bomb” that uses quantum technology is essentially an exponentially worse nuclear bomb.) Ford had the blood of 70 million people on his hands and received a dishonorable discharge. In the years since, he’s been shunned by some, but heralded by others as the only man willing to do what needed to be done. So you know, your typical Willis gig.

But when two miners are attacked by a mysterious alien force, the Alliance jumps into action, and General Eron Ryle (Grillo) insists on Ford’s expertise. So while Ford and his lackey Dash (the film’s co-writer, Corey Large) are being retrieved from a bar fight (the only human inventions in 500 years are robot bartenders; otherwise, humans in 2524 still drive gas-guzzling pickup trucks and use guns that shoot bullets), Dr. Lea Goss (Perrey Reeves) is waiting to inspect the miners brought back to Earth after the alien event.

And that’s when it all goes to hell: The aliens are parasites who can possess and reanimate human corpses, and whose oily black blood allows them to spread from body to body. After they nearly overrun the Alliance base, Ryle and Ford come up with a plan: The only thing to do is travel to the planet where the aliens currently are, and drop a Q-bomb on them. Easy peasy!

It says a lot about Cosmic Sin’s throwback conceit that the characters largely approve of this idea, and that the only doubters are women. Dr. Goss is the typical “more interested in the aliens than in humanity” character (“You want to fuck it or kill it?” someone asks), while quantum tech Fiona Ardene (Adelaide Kane) is upset that the technology she works on could be used to kill others. The movie barely hides its loathing for their moral uncertainty, while Gen. Ryle’s nephew Braxton (Brandon Thomas Lee) and longtime comrade Marcus Bleck (Costas Mandylor), both eager to kill as many aliens as possible, are positioned as additional heroes. And when the humans track the alien signal to Ellora, Braxton and Ford take center stage, leading the charge against the invading force alongside the Cara Dune-styled character Sol Cantos (C.J. Perry, a.k.a. the wrestler Lana).

Is this where Cosmic Sin is supposed to be exciting? Maybe. The humans, bedecked in brightly colored Icarus Suits and helmets, jump through space-time from Earth to the Ellora colony, but what’s meant as a bravura sequence is confusingly edited and visually flat. Neither the scale of the spaceships nor the humans whizzing by the vessels as they shoot each other looks quite right. The aliens are a kludge of Sauron and Cthulhu-style details, including tentacled faces, elongated claw-fingers, and oversized medieval weaponry. The blurry, jumpy cinematography isn’t scary, just disorienting.

Frank Grillo, glowering in intense blue light in Cosmic Sin Photo: Saban Films

The saving grace of a throwback spectacle movie is usually its ability to acknowledge its genre’s familiar faults, but so much of Cosmic Sin is handled without any real sense of fun. Braxton and Fiona butt heads in the familiar way that involves a man treating a woman like an idiot, and her responding by falling for him. Willis sometimes seems like he’s on an entirely different set than everyone else, and he delivers every line with the same deadpan growl. Grillo is strangely sidelined, a bizarre narrative choice given that he’s leading the mission. And although the film’s climactic moment has throwback appeal in its interstellar design — all glowing purple stars, angular spaceships, and an expanding halo of explosive blue light — the beauty of that moment is marred by a return to an overly prolonged shoot-out scene where every third line of dialogue is “Fuck.”

That inability to decide what kind of movie it wants to be is Cosmic Sin’s greatest shortcoming. Is it just rah-rah military propaganda, like when someone praises Ford with “He’s a warmonger, but he’s our fucking warmonger”? Is it a comedy poking fun at our love affair with the stars, like when Braxton says of dying in a black hole, “Being sucked off by the universe doesn’t sound like the worst way to go”? In one of the film’s final scenes, a hologram country band wails on a harmonica while Braxton beats up an alien warrior. It should be gloriously absurd, an over-the-top, revelatory celebration of cinematic cheese. It isn’t. Which is a sign that Cosmic Sin makes the most egregious cinematic transgression of all: It’s boring.

Cosmic Sin is now available on digital rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other platforms.