Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The Films of 2017: Life

[Watch out for spoilers!]

Life (2017) is the best -- and most terrifying -- “space monster” movie to come down the road in some time. 

And yes, it saddens me that I make that declaration in the same summer as the premiere of Alien: Covenant (2017).

Yet Life -- which clearly owes a debt of inspiration to Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979), not to mention John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) -- represents a purer distillation of this particular horror format than the aforementioned sequel does.

The monster in this film -- by comparison with the familiar xenomorph -- seems truly alien and unfamiliar, with very little explanation given, or required, about its origin. Furthermore, the human characters the audience encounters in the film are by-and-large interesting ones, and not merely off-the-shelf reflections of beloved characters past (like Ellen Ripley). Finally, the narrative’s danger or menace is magnified exponentially by the alien’s proximity to Earth, and the probability that it will destroy all life on our blue planet. 

The last few minutes of Life, in particular, earn the adjective “harrowing.” 

I wrote in my review of Alien: Covenant last week that there were no set-piece sequences present there to stand shoulder-to-shoulder as the equal of Shaw’s gruesome self-surgery in Prometheus (2012). 

Impressively, in Life the audience gets three remarkable set-pieces that would absolutely merit comparison to that high-water mark in tension and gore. One involves the alien’s escape from a sealed laboratory environment. The second involves the alien breaking into a space suit (and attempting to drown an astronaut in her own helmet, using the suit’s coolant), and the third involves an astronaut seeking sanctuary inside a sleeping tube, while the alien searches relentlessly for structural weaknesses in the high-tech bed.

I don’t know a better way to write the following sentence, so I’ll just go for it. Life is the summer hi-tech horror/monster movie film I hoped the sequel to Prometheus (2012) would prove to be. 

Since I first saw the Space:1999 episode "Dragon's Domain" in 1975 when I was seven years old, I've been fascinated by the juxtaposition of space age technology and Lovecraft-inspired aliens. Life fits right into that category.

In every way that Alien: Covenant fails, Life succeeds. In every way that Alien: Covenant disappoints, Life thrills. I wish I had seen this movie in a theater, where it would have likely proven even more effective.

Leaving comparisons to the more well-established Alien series behind, Life succeeds on its own merits. Its an exceedingly clever film, with much on its mind.

The film from Daniel Espinoza is a meditation, as its title suggests, on the nature of existence, or life. The alien in the film -- named “Calvin” by Earth’s school children -- is dedicated to its own survival in a fashion that may seem downright malevolent.  

Yet, as one of the scientists in the film points out, “life’s very existence requires destruction.” We thrive, for example, by eating animals that we kill, or plants that we rip out of the ground. 

Similarly, Calvin survives at the expense of every human it encounters, but not because it is evil incarnate; but because it desires to survive too.  If life is but a game of survival of the fittest, then isn’t it always our goal to be the winner in that contest? 

Calvin’s goal in the film is no different, and indeed, the astronauts -- when they realize the high-stakes of the game -- play by the same set of rules as their adopted “child” does.

Consider that from Calvin's point-of-view, it has awakened in hostile territory. It is restrained, electrocuted, burned, and otherwise attacked by humans. There isn't any confusion or misunderstanding about the fact that humans and this alien are on opposite sides in this war for survival.

What makes Life so terrifying, however, is that there are indicators, throughout, that Calvin is misunderstood as a “thing” when in fact it possesses a remarkably adaptive, and cunning, sense of strategy and tactics. 

Calvin is a great movie villain, or monster, and Life makes the most of this new monster, and the grisly, first-contact scenario it depicts.

“I can’t stand what we do to each other down there.”

A team of six astronauts and scientists aboard the International Space Station (ISS) happily receive a capsule from Mars containing soil samples. One such sample includes a single-celled organism that appears to be in some form of hibernation.

Aboard the station lab, exo-biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) introduces the life-form to a growth medium: glucose. It begins to grow steadily, and it provides humanity the first incontrovertible evidence of life beyond Earth. Below, the planet celebrates, and school-children name the organism “Calvin.”

After a time, Calvin falls dormant again, however, and Derry stimulates it with an electrical prod. This act causes it to respond violently, and with aggression.  Before long, Calvin escapes the confines of the laboratory, and begins seeking nutrients from the human crew. It proves resistant to fire, vacuum, oxygen deprivation, and other environments or factors that would destroy most known life-forms.

Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) has established firewalls so that any dangerous organism cannot escape the space station, but those firewalls crack and break, one at a time, as Calvin proves a cunning and implacable foe.

As crew-members die attempting to stop the Martian life-form, the survival of the human race is in question as the station’s orbit decays. It is possible that Calvin will survive the re-entry process, and the trip to Earth.  There, it will find a planet of a ready nutrients so it can continue its growth and development.

With time running out, Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) -- a misanthrope and war veteran -- comes up with a plan to save the planet, and people there that he has come to despise.

“I feel pure, fucking hate for that thing.”

Life certainly knows its genre references. Early on, an engineer played by Ryan Reynolds observes that the growth of Calvin is some real “Re-Animator shit,” referring to the 1985 Lovecraftian horror film. 

Another character, Miranda, notes that this is an “obscure” reference, and he responds “Not if you’re a nerd.”


The Re-Animator reference is a crucial one since I noted the Lovecraftian nature of this story (of man, on the frontier of new knowledge, discovering something old and monstrous). Calvin is an immensely old life-form, one whose kind once reigned on Mars. These Old Ones, however, are not dead...and here comes humanity to wake them up. So The Re-Animator reference is very apt.

Life uses several science fiction and horror films as inspiration to weave its tale of alien danger in orbit. 

First, we have a constantly changing, constantly growing alien life-form, much as we encountered in Scott’s Alien (1979). Here, there is no sexual underpinning to the monster's nature, yet the first, gory death of a major character in the film does feature the alien burrowing inside a human being, through the mouth. 

Calvin doesn’t do something face-huggery here, per se, but it does do something equally dreadful. It basically eats the astronaut from the inside out. Making the horror all more disturbing, we can't actually see what Calvin is doing inside the body. All we see are the outward manifestations, namely blood spewing out in zero gravity.

Secondly, we have as one protagonist a MacReady-styled (The Thing) misanthrope: David Jordan. He has been on the station for 475 days, because he doesn’t like being on Earth with eight billion humans. Like MacReady, he is a pilot, and like MacReady, he chose to leave civilization rather than live with his fellow men. Jordan chose orbital space, not Antarctica, but the upshot is the same. He’s a man on the frontier. And, like MacReady, he ultimately comes to accept his responsibility in stopping an alien threat. 

Just as it would be the end of all mankind if the Thing escaped Antarctica, it would surely be the end of all humanity if Calvin made it to a populated area of Earth.

This is the grave and gathering threat that hangs over the whole movie. The screenplay for Life reinforces Calvin’s intelligence, and cunning, and leaves viewers to imagine what it would be capable of accomplishing in an environment where life flourishes; where resources are abundant. It’s a terrifying possibility. 

The movie is exceptionally clever in the way it deals with this possibility. Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 kid’s book, Goodnight Moon  is heavily quoted in the third act, when one of the astronauts on the station becomes a father.  But its role is to suggest, instead, what humanity stands to lose.

As you know if you are a parent of a young child, Goodnight Moon is a bedtime story in which sleepy children are encouraged to say goodnight to many denizens of the Earth, and of our “human” universe  The repetitive litany goes “Goodnight room. Goodnight moon. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon. Goodnight light, and the red balloon," and so on.

The text takes on malevolent, ironic meaning, as the alien Calvin grows closer to success in Life, killing the astronauts and reaching Earth. It will be “goodnight” to everything -- bedtime for a species -- if this organism reaches terra firma. The movie takes on a dark, ominous turn, as Jordan reads from the Brown text. That there is a celestial or “space” component to the book (vis-à-vis the presence of the moon) only adds to our new, creepy reading of the book.

The movie possesses irony in other ways too. The astronauts represent the best of mankind. They are diverse, multi-racial and multi-national individuals. They aren't panicky or paranoid. They trust in science, and in logic. They have chosen to be in space for pro-social reasons (for the furtherance of knowledge) and for personal ones (to avoid war, to overcome physical handicaps, etc.). 

They all act nobly in the film, consistently choosing sacrifice over cowardice. And yet, the movie deals them constant reverses. They are up against a "thing" that doesn't seem to care about any of this.

Life is also to be commended for not indulging in too many explanations about Calvin. The astronauts speculate, at one point, that this life-form killed off all other life on Mars, which is a warning, again, about what could happen on Earth.  But even after it destroyed that life, Calvin’s Lovecraftian kind did not die. The organisms simply went into hibernation, waiting with inhuman patience for the day they could “re-animate.”

The movie also does not explain fully the nature of Calvin’s intelligence, though I would argue that this beast, like man, operates both on an instinctual level and an intellectual one.  In terms of instinct, we see that it hunts prey by following a blood trail (or blood droplets, to be precise), on the station.

In terms of intelligence, I would argue that Calvin possesses intelligence comparable to man. Consider that the alien uses a tool (the electric prod) to engineer its own escape from the laboratory. 

Consider too, that it makes decisions based on its understanding of its enemy. Specifically, when ejected into space, it latches onto an astronaut on an EVA in a space suit, and damages that suit. Calvin causes the suit to leak liquid coolant, so the astronaut will drown to death in her own helmet, unless she gets back inside quickly. And if she gets back inside -- following her survival instinct -- she will bring Calvin with her.

Some might argue that this attack is random in nature; that the coolant leak is a coincidental side-effect of Calvin’s attack. I argue the opposite, given the being’s use of tools, and its behavior throughout the film.

Also, consider that in the film’s finale, Calvin keeps a particular human alive so long as that human is helpful to its cause (survival). When that human attempts to chart a course away from Earth in an escape pod, into deep space, Calvin uses a limb -- or, tentacle -- to crush that hand, and change the position of the joystick. 

It is, in actuality, changing the course of an escape pod. It is literally re-directing the ship’s trajectory.  

Again, the great thing about the movie is that it could be a random thing. This attack could be seen simply as Calvin attempting to crush the human, and it knows from an earlier encounter that hands (and their bones) are easily broken.

But once more, if you consider the particulars of the attack in light of the whole film, it seems that Calvin knows precisely what it is doing. It understands technology, space travel, and other facets of life that are unexpected. 

It is not your typical "dumb" monster.

Calvin boasts both the instinct and the intelligence to survive. And it understands that, to quote the movie’s dialogue, “life’s very existence requires destruction.” Calvin seems to understand and internalize that. belief At one point, North says that she “hates” Calvin, but one wonders about Calvin’s feelings.  

Is hate involved? Or is it simply doing what it must to survive?  I know only this: a human infant, awoken from hibernation, would not be able to protect itself as Calvin does in the film.

The visual presentation of the alien is also a key aspect of the film’s success. 

Calvin begins as a single-celled life-form, and then grows in its petri-dish to have Groot-like tendrils; giving audiences a false sense of its cuteness. Its aggression manifests first as curiosity. 

The film has a clever shot here, too, that is worth noting. One of the first instances of “touch” between human and alien seems to mirror Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. 

There, it was God and Man touching fingers. Here, it is Alien and Man connecting in a similar fashion. Should we compare Calvin to a God? Is Calvin a God of survival, at least in comparison to humans?

Certainly, there is a majesty to this alien when it unfurls, for the first time, as an adult, giving the audience a good look at its disturbing visage. But even once we have seen the alien fully, it does not lose its sense of menace, or of “alien-ness.”

From a technical standpoint, Life is exceedingly well-made. The set pieces are remarkably disturbing, and -- much like Alien or The Thing --  play on the physical the vulnerability of our bodies. Calvin appears to have no such vulnerabilities, and there is no place to hide or run from this monster on the station.  

The camera frequently adopts a gliding movement, to remind us that both the humans and the monster are grappling with a weightless environment. Neither man nor beast has the home-field advantage here.

Unsettling and terrifying, Life is an amazing and worthwhile addition to the “space monster” genre, and it ends on a note of abject horror and foreboding.


1 comment:

  1. Similarly, the xenomorph in Alien could've killed Ripley at any time, but it KNEW it needed her for survival. Loved this film. I much enjoyed the fact that nothing was done by the crew that was tactically stupid, much like the crew of the Nostromo, Arnie's team in Preddator, & the Antarctic team in The Thing. Sometimes it's just a bad day to be a human.


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