Life is sort of a brilliant movie, right up until the point where it decides it wants to be cynical and routine instead. Overly glib, I know, but only by a little bit; the dividing line is that clean, like snapping a dry twig, between the lean and efficient escalation of the first 85 minutes and the goofy last-minute plot devices of the final ten. The final scene does indeed deliver a nasty jolt in the form of a misdirection, and it sells the innate horror of the piece, but the movie preceding it is different and more effective, and deserved a better coda.
Movie Review: Life
By Ben Gruchow
April 4, 2017
The individual trappings of the story, about an alien creature that makes its way into a research facility in shallow orbit around Earth, are just the set dressing: this is in tone and pacing a narrative about a team of scientists and engineers in an unforgiving environment, dealt a setback with a ticking clock, forced to work their way out of the box they're in. Rather than logistical puzzles, we have the elements of a medical thriller, but the focus is on overcoming obstacles rather than escape. It's also more meditative than most movies in this genre, with a dignified and almost mournful tone at the outset about the disconnection from human connection off Earth to human connection on Earth.
We can still start with the superficial pitch of the movie: aboard the International Space Station, a crew works to recover a Mars probe containing a soil sample. We have already seen this probe, in a short opening sequence that shows it compromised by a dense belt of debris. We’re introduced to the crew in the context of the probe recovery, via a technically flawless and showy extended opening shot, one that owes more than a little debt of gratitude to Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity from 2013 (in a weekend with both major openers possessing extended but perfunctory establishing shots, you start thinking about where it's been done best, but you will not hear me complain about the filmmakers imitating any technique that involves longer takes).
The soil sample contains a microscopic dormant organism: the first evidence of life outside our planet. It's unusual, with every cell acting as a myocyte, neuron, and photoreceptor at once, reflecting a consciousness capable of full emergent function individually or together: “all muscle, all brain, and all eye”, as put by Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson). It's awakened by adjusting the atmosphere to prehistoric Earth pressure, which should be a red light, but I digress. The life form is named Calvin, ostensibly after a school on Earth that won a lottery; we may find there’s room to consider the philosophical trajectory of John Calvin, over the course of the film, as another appropriate reason for the name. There are complications aboard the ISS before Calvin’s arrival. The environment of orbit has begun to take its toll on several crew members, not least of which is David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has been aboard the station for so long that he's approaching the outer limit of safe radiation exposure; for him and other crew members, the isolation has begun to weigh on their equanimity.
Something goes wrong with the contained environment holding Calvin; there is a momentary breach, and the difference in atmosphere has caused the little creature to go dormant again, for days on end. The idea that it's hibernating and adjusting to the new concentration of atmosphere occurs to us more frequently than to the characters, as biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) discovers to his detriment when he attempts to revive the creature by electric stimulation. The consciousness that's all-seeing and all-knowing and self-propelling in every facet of its being quickly intuits things bad for the scientists, and it awakens with a new aggression and ability to solve problems.
So yes: this is basically Alien in the broad strokes. There are a couple of inversions to the proceedings that change the shape of the thing in ways that are unobtrusive but significant. The most obvious has to do with momentum v. stasis: in the 1979 film, the humans were the interlopers acquiring a newborn life-form. The research team is explicitly here to retrieve a soil sample, but they do so in a way that involves waiting for the sample to come to them. This seems like a piddling detail until we evaluate what the movie comes to say later about survival instinct and drive. The research team in Life is out of their depth, with operations of great implications for the species being carried out by crew members past their shipping date, and unaware of or untrained in crucial security procedure. The movie’s calculations all along view Calvin and the humans in a contest of biology and physiology rather than good vs. evil, and this kind of establishing detail is important.
Contests of biology and physiology are almost always won by the party with greater cognitive awareness, adaptability, and resilience; the humans realize this, but not before Calvin secures escape from its container and quickly realizes that blood contains the elements of carbon and oxygen necessary to sustain itself. We witness this in a short and brutal little encounter with a laboratory mouse; once Calvin finally realizes what awaits it inside the human body, the result is a shudderingly efficient and unblinking moment of cinematic body horror.
For the remainder of the film, where we would normally be watching the otherwise-tiresome spectacle of characters creeping along corridors and being ambushed by a slithery creature effect, we are witnessing the characters instead possessed by the increasing drive to be better at survival instinct and tactics, as the consequences and stakes become more and more dire and wins and losses pile up for both parties almost by accident. When we arrive at a scene where a character expresses hatred as a persistent feeling toward Calvin, it's in some ways the most disquieting moment in the film: here is the bitter resentment felt by the losing side of the contest toward the essential nature of the other.
As catharsis, it’s cold and clinical, and yet not unsentimental…nor is a moment somewhat later, evoking reconciliation with fate by way of a meditative and chilling storybook recitation. These qualities, pragmatic and austere without being antiseptic, elevate almost the entire film to the level of being a great snapshot of unexpected, straitlaced horror. Almost. For it's also right around this moment of reflection that the movie whipsaws back on itself and decides to tag an extended coda onto the story by way of a last-minute plan. If you squint your eyes and cock your head just right, you can make out the shape of an additional wrinkle on the movie’s philosophy on survivalism and tactics in this redirection; that doesn't make it any less harmful to the graceful wind-down that we were previously approaching. What was shaping up to be a unique and creeping minor classic in the pantheon of exobiological horror morphs at the last minute into a sting reminiscent of a much more misanthropic and callous piece of work, and did it ever irritate me.
It thankfully does not do enough damage to indict the bulk of what comes before, and it does at least do one final bit of justice to the movie, which also involves the shapes taken by Calvin at the movie’s center. This is an authentically scary creature, mostly so early on as a collection of eerie, Lovecraftian stalks and fronds; as it grows and changes, it starts to develop a slightly more typical monstrous form (albeit still an effective one). Its final appearance in the film fully embraces that abstracted and alien aesthetic, and it helps alleviate the lesser function of the story. This is surprisingly resilient and self-aware genre cinema, better than we expect. It works.
4 out of 5