Movie Review: Life
By Ben Gruchow
April 4, 2017
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