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“I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe"

Life (April 2017)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

In Daniel Espinosa’s Life (2017) the crew of the International Space Station retrieves a sample of Mars soil containing dormant extraterrestrial cells. Scientist Hugh Derry is able to successfully awaken one of these cells, and finds the right conditions to stimulate its growth and development. An accident in his lab on the ISS, however, causes the alien life-form to return to a dormant state, until Hugh gives it a mild electric shock. The life-form’s response to this stimulus kicks off a chain of events that threatens the life of everyone aboard the ISS—and possibly beyond.

We Were Better Off Alone

About halfway through this film I found myself thinking about World War Z (2013), not because of any specific story similarity—though I suppose they’re both action/horror/disaster films that deal with a biological threat to human life as we know it—but because this too feels like B-quality material dressed up in A-level production values. The special effects provide a glut of eye candy; the ensemble performances (Hiroyuki Sanada, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Olga Dihovichnaya and Ariyon Bakare) are all solid, and there’s good collective chemistry; the sound design is intense and textured; the cinematography is slick and visually engrossing; the editing is occasionally inspired. But the narrative driven by these elements is derivative and lackluster, and the action sequences, though sporadically thrilling, fail to add up to anything.

Part of the problem is the film’s split tone. Early on we get schoolchildren on Earth dubbing the alien life-form “Calvin”; we learn a little about the characters’ backgrounds, like David’s military tour in Syria and his incipient misanthropy; we get a joking reference by Rory Adams to Re-Animator (1985). In general a veneer of plausible, near-future science fiction extrapolation is painted for us, if not quite as realism-grounded, say, as The Martian (2015), at least markedly more ambitious than The Last Days on Mars (2013), another tale of fossilized Martian bacterial life come back to haunt us. An early EVA sequence even brings to mind Gravity’s (2013) dizzying zero-g calisthenics. Espinosa goes to great lengths to show us the cast’s commitment, and to establish the physicality and character of the ISS itself. Yet once the first mishap with “Calvin” takes place, we’re quickly launched into familiar Alien-esque, Thing-esque territory. Nothing wrong with thrusting from sf into horror, but unfortunately in doing so this film jettisons most of its humor and intelligence with the same speed as the station’s oxygen and fuel. Mission to Mars (2000) also started with some neat free-floating camera movements. It didn’t end well.

Besides this awkward shift, there’s a lack of character development. The few things we learn about each of the scientists are intriguing, but woefully inadequate for us to feel much when said scientists face jeopardy. The small-scale film Europa Report (2013), while not necessarily a manual in terms of psychological depth, made me care more for its crew than Life did. When you pitch humans against aliens, it’s important to be emotionally invested in at least one side.

I mentioned a disregard for intelligence, and I’ll admit this bugged me early on. When Hugh Derry uses his finger to greet “Calvin,” moving his hand to and fro to watch the creature sway in turn, it reminded me of one of my least-favorite scenes from Prometheus (2012), that notorious sequence where the supposedly highly-trained biologist Millburn decides it’s a good idea to pet the new alien space snake he’s discovered on a terror-inspiring alien planet. From now on, all film space biologists should follow the simple motto, “Look but don’t touch.”

It Doesn’t Hate Us – Spoilers Ahead

Life kicks up ideas that could have led to interesting material. Hugh’s musing that Calvin doesn’t hate humans but is simply doing what it needs to do in order to survive contains the seed of a thought-provoking theme. Unfortunately, whatever philosophical weight it’s supposed to accrue is deflated by the film contradicting what he’s said: if Calvin’s constituent cells were able to lay dormant for hundreds of millions of years on Mars, couldn’t it go dormant now as well, rather than continue its aggressive growth-and-killing spree? It’s difficult to accept “Calvin” as both thoughtless, instinct-driven predator—a belief we need in order to generate suspense during the chase and havoc-wreaking sequences—and also thoughtful, tool-wielding (as established by the scene in which “Calvin” uses the wand to puncture the lab glove) alien life-form. The notion that life itself is inherently destructive, because it requires environmental resources to survive, could have led to broader meditations, for example, about humanity’s own conflicted relationship with its native spacefaring ship, the Earth. Instead, all of this is buried by frantic chases and much screaming.

The film’s plot holes and body count grow at about the same rate. Another early conceit, largely unexplored, is the organism’s construction, which relies on cells that perform multiple different functions, such as photosensitivity and cognition, simultaneously, and which can operate jointly or independently from one another. If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be a good survival strategy for “Calvin” to split off into numerous smaller “Calvins” and form a reconnaissance team? Based on the organism’s super-rapid development, what is its life-cycle? Does it grow indefinitely, like a kind of cancer? If so, and if it is as agile and resilient as demonstrated by the film’s events, how did it end up being defeated by a slow loss of atmosphere on Mars over hundreds of millions of years? Again, “Calvin” learned how to use a human tool in a few days. Over a geologic time period I would have expected it to do better than take a nap.

I also feel like the film’s shots showing the alien POV are a mistake. They drain the creature from purported otherness and render it little more than Predator lite. Its penchant for human blood was particularly distracting. Are they setting us up for Calvin Meets Sharknado?

Beyond the immediate shock value of its twist, I’m not really sure what to make of the film’s ending. Were the escape pods A and B preprogrammed in such a way that David and Miranda weren’t able to override them? If so, is the Weyland-Yutani Corporation really behind all this? But then what about the “firewall” protocols—was that all fake? Or was the firewall stuff real, and David and Miranda are, uh, bad pilots? Did oxygen depletion make them get into the wrong pods? These are supposed to be bright people.

One positive consequence of “Calvin” making it to Earth, I suppose, is that it will finally be able to meet up with its long-lost cousin, that most quixotic, gelatinous and acrobatic of substances, the one-and-only highly viscous, phase-shifting, sentient elastomer. You guessed it: Flubber.

Imagine the mamboing possibilities.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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