Movie Review: Life
By Ben Gruchow
April 4, 2017
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.
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.