Stop me if you’ve heard this one: six people are trapped in one location with an implacable, unknowable, and unfeeling monster that eliminates them one by one while they struggle to understand the lack of empathy and meaning in our cold, lifeless universe. That’s right—I’m talking about The Bachelorette!
That scenario would also, I suppose, describe any haunted-house or psycho-killer horror movie shot in the last 40 years. Make the location a spaceship and the monster from another planet and you could be talking about any number of scary movies set in outer space, like 1979’s Alien. Ridley Scott’s film about space truckers being menaced by a faceless, unkillable creature certainly wasn’t the first of its kind. Films with monsters that stalked on two legs—like Nosferatu, Frankenstein, King Kong, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Night of the Living Dead—all predate Alien and feature their villains preying on villagers, teenagers, the young, the old, Fay Wray, and a flower-loving little girl who isn’t much of a swimmer. Each of those movies tries to some degree to humanize its monster by suggesting that it’s misunderstood or that “man is the real monster.” Alien, however, presents something different: a monster that’s seemingly impossible to kill. A creature that, with its acid blood, can even retaliate while being injured. A creature that doesn’t like you or hate you; it doesn’t even know what those concepts mean. It just wants to kill you—or use your body to create more of itself in a process that will kill you. It’s an animal, acting in service of self-preservation, and as it feeds on and/or impregnates you, it doesn’t comprehend or even stop to wonder who this God is that you’re screaming to.
Not many other movie monsters are like that. Even other bestial film fiends like Godzilla and the ants from Them! represent the “natural order” punishing man for playing with nuclear powers that he doesn’t understand. Bruce, the shark from Jaws, may have black eyes, a doll’s eyes, like the aforementioned Bachelorette, but in the end he’s just a hungry animal. The real villain of Jaws is the grasping, insensate mayor who obdurately refuses to close the beaches in the literal wake of a tide of dead bodies. Lesson learned: never trust anyone in an anchor-themed sportcoat.
The alien in Alien tells us a different story: there is no greater morality, there is no point to your existence, and space is an infinite, trackless void that would laugh at your achievements if it had a face to do it with. There is no God—or if there is, he’s basically indistinguishable from the Devil if, in his free time, he chose to make an unkillable creature that gets a baby inside of you before it tears your head off. It’s a nature documentary on weapons-grade crack, a creationist’s worst nightmare, and the kind of thing that Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry text to each other late at night after “U up?”
This isn’t a review of Alien, but admittedly I’m about halfway to one at this point. Coincidentally, that’s about the same fraction of the Alien script the makers of Life used to create their recent film. The rest is 45 percent Gravity and 5 percent Goodnight Moon. (More on that later.)
Life stars, mainly, Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Nightcrawler), and Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, Van Wilder) as astronauts aboard the International Space Station who are tasked with retrieving a probe filled with Martian soil samples that they hope will contain . . . well, life. I think you know how the rest of the story goes: the soil does contain a microorganism, the crew nurtures it, it grows exponentially, and it turns out to be unfriendly and threatens to crush them like Clifford the Big Red Planet Dog. That’s an inaccurate simile, though, and not just because Goodnight Moon, not Clifford, is the children’s book we’re moving inexorably toward. It’s also because our creature—which, though scary, infallibly puts me in the mind of a Wacky WallWalker—isn’t an unthinking, unconsciously destructive force, like a jiggly Baby Huey. It possesses a a vicious, vengeful intelligence. Or does it?
In the film, a school on Earth wins a contest to name the new creature, and they settle on Calvin. Because they go to Coolidge Elementary, maybe? Although it’s never explained in the movie, it’s presumably an abstruse reference by screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese (formerly of Deadpool and, I shit you not, Clifford’s Really Big Movie) to Reformation figure John Calvin. Although, in favor of Coolidge, the creature is pretty silent, and by killing the multinational crew he seems to be ruling against a League of Nations. In any case, the John Calvin reference makes a little more sense when considering Calvin’s philosophy of predestination and the absent (or, in Calvin’s case, “tough-love”) deity that I mentioned earlier: you’re either chosen for salvation by Calvin’s God or you’re out of luck, and the hapless but comely astronauts of Life are certainly in the second category. There’s an unfeeling, nihilistic brutality in the way they’re dispatched by Calvin, their wiggly interloper, whom they initially seek to understand but, as the film progresses, ineptly try to contain and destroy.
And we’re talking Grade A, first-day-on-the-job, Peter Principle incompetence here. Every one of the crew members of Life’s ISS could feature in an ad for Versace, but they probably couldn’t spell it. President Trump currently seems bullish on space exploration—so too, remember, was George W. Bush in his first term—but if he ever decides to scrap NASA funding along with his efforts to cut the arts, meal assistance, and public broadcasting, Columbia Pictures and Sony have made the perfect propaganda film for the effort. Throughout the film’s 100-minute running length, six people who are introduced to us as the best humanity has to offer proceed to break every rule of NASA protocol, scientific ethics, crisis management, and common sense in their struggle to simply do their jobs. The stakes are presented as literally sky high: Calvin (dangerous, antisocial, and growing quickly) must never fall to Earth, according to quarantine officer Dr. Miranda North (Ferguson), as he rapaciously absorbs organic material and could do to our planet what he seemingly did to Mars millions of years ago. To prevent this, the NASA and the CDC have implemented “firewall” protocols designed to isolate the station and neutralize the threat before it spreads. It’s not exactly a major spoiler to say that those protocols fail spectacularly, thanks in no small part to our emotional and irrational heroes.
Let’s face it: people in horror movies make dumb decisions. They run up the stairs when they should run out the front door, they engage in “extracurricular” activities when they should be vigilant, they assume the killer is dead because he fell down a flight of stairs (for all, see: Scream). But, generally, they’re also kids; they’re either blithely enjoying themselves or actively (if naïvely) trying to escape. They’re not adult professionals spending billions of taxpayer dollars while doing their jobs extremely badly, and the astronauts’ head-scratching moments of inaction and emotional breaches of protocol are a frustrating element to this film. In Life’s most brutal scene, the crew gawps helplessly as Calvin savages one of their crewmates, and hothead Rory Adams (Reynolds, good here in a very un–Ryan Reynoldsy role) violates quarantine in an attempt to save his friend and kill the beast. It doesn’t go as planned, and Calvin draws first blood from the crew in a gut-churning fashion that suggests a malevolent mind.
Or maybe not? The intention of the director, Daniel Espinoza of Safe House and Child 44, seems to be that Calvin is a creature acting purely in self-defense. Indeed, the ironic title Life seems to be chosen to accentuate that. But as the film progresses, Calvin behaves in ways that suggest he’s not just looking for a meal—his actions begin to look like vengeance, cruelty, and even strategy in the film’s final act. Life (the phenomenon, not the film) can often exhibit those traits, but this seems to run counter to the film’s theme of “life,” that is, the drive to survive and thrive. It’s a vexing case of having your astronaut and eating him, too, and it muddies what the movie tries to ultimately express. The Alien films themselves, as they progressed, fell into this same trap, ascribing dark intelligence to creatures that were initially depicted as the ultimate survivors. Life, in trying to emulate those films, trips over itself in its attempts at homage or just straight-out theft. As in the Alien saga, there’s a suggestion that the powers that be may have anticipated that the life form in question already existed and was known to be dangerous. But, outside of a third-act reveal of a literally final firewall, this is never explored in any depth.
Admirably, the remainder of the cast, though given little script to work with, all show up ready to play. Ariyon Bakare is captivating as the crew’s biologist, who becomes a little too enamored with his subject of study, as scientist characters usually do in these types of films. Jake Gyllenhaal is also good (if underwritten) as the station’s longest inhabitant, a PTSD-ridden former soldier who has his disillusionment with humanity brought into stark relief when faced with the possibility of humanity’s destruction.
It’s a beautiful film, as well, with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Nocturnal Animals) providing Gravity-like views of the ISS, including the ambitious seven-minute tracking shot that opens the film. But outside of making our hot-stronauts look good as they drop like flies, the film never aspires to anything else as visually impressive.
That lack of ambition is the defining aspect of the film, and it ultimately keeps Life from accomplishing anything more than being the latest Alien knockoff. Even the cast, though talented, is simply the complement of actors you’d expect to see in an early-year potential blockbuster. Fun fact: Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays system engineer Sho Murakami in the film, had already been killed by a space monster in 2007’s Sunshine, which doesn’t do much to make this film feel any more original. Fun fact number two is that Life was originally slated to be released on May 26 . . . until the announcement that real-deal Alien film Alien: Covenant would come out a week prior. Even the studio seemed to know that Life pales in comparison to its clear inspiration. It’s not a bad film, certainly better than an episode of The Bachleorette, but like a rerun of The Bachelorette, you’ve probably seen it before.
The film does go off-script from the Alien playbook for its ending, leading to a twist that, though you can see it coming from a mile away, remains somewhat effective. Less effective is Gyllenhaal’s bitter yet presumably poignant reading of Goodnight Moon late in the film, the contemplation of which, of course, leads him to an insight he thinks will help him kill Calvin and save the crew. As soon as the book was introduced, the movie maven part of my mind began scanning what I knew of the text to uncover the inevitable third-act reveal that would emerge from it. But then I gave up, thinking, “Why bother?” Whatever was going to happen was destined to happen anyway. Calvin is more important to this film than Chekhov ever could be.