Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ariyon Bakare, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ryan Reynolds, Olga Dihovichnaya
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror)
Running Time: 1:43
Release Date: 3/24/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 24, 2017
Ideally, when it comes to creating interesting characters, a good monster-based horror movie shouldn't have to choose between the humans and the monster. There's room for both, of course, but if such a movie has to pick between the two, the monster might be the correct choice. That's the case with Life, in which a bunch of fairly disposable humans try to match wits with a monster aboard the International Space Station.
The operative words here are "wits" and "try," because the monster, which begins as a single-celled organism, is intelligent—and intelligent enough that it is a formidable opponent for the more-evolved entities on the space station. The humans' primary role in Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's screenplay is, essentially, not to do anything that seems outlandishly stupid. For the most part, they succeed in that regard, and even the dumber decisions that they make have some logic or rationale behind them.
That's enough, because the film's star is its monster. It's discovered on Mars during an unmanned exploration of the planet. The opening sequence is an at-times dizzying sequence—shot in long and unbroken takes in which the camera hovers and spins through the station's corridors—that follows the crew retrieving the capsule containing the specimens. It was damaged on its way back to Earth, so one of the crewmembers has to retrieve it using a mechanical arm connected to the ISS.
What's effective about the sequence is the way director Daniel Espinosa uses it for two purposes: 1.) as an immediately high-stakes setpiece and 2.) as a means of establishing the tight quarters and coffin-esque nature of the station. Also, it helps us get acquainted to the notion that there are no physical bearings onboard, since everyone is in a state of weightlessness. Characters float through the air while trying to get a good view of their crewmate's daring rescue and hang upside-down while doing some last-second calculations.
The crew is made up of various types from major nations of the world. The Americans are David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), the station's doctor who has just set a record for spending the most time in space, and Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds), the crew's resident smart aleck. The Brits are Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), who's in charge of establishing quarantine protocol, and Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), a biologist who would be wheelchair-bound on Earth but finds freedom in a low-gravity environment. From Japan is Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), who watches his wife give birth on a video call shortly into their mission, and Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya), the mission's commander, hails from Russia.
This is the extent of what we get about the characters, but really, it's also the extent of what we need from them. They're fodder—quite literally in a few cases—for the monster, and the most we can really expect from a film like this is that we'll feel bad about seeing them go. In one case, we're quite surprised to see one go when he or she actually does. Let's just say that Espinosa isn't afraid to do away with a recognizable face.
Once the samples are onboard the ISS, Hugh gets to work. The world is abuzz with the news that life outside Earth has been discovered, and a happy elementary-school student, whose school won a contest for the honor, names the single-cell organism "Calvin."
Calvin's growth is rapid as its cellular form essentially repeats itself, forming appendages that can reach out and touch Hugh's finger, which is safeguarded by a thick, plastic glove. Each of its cells can perform multiple functions—muscular, neurological, optical. As Miranda puts it, "It's all muscle, all brain, and all sight."
Obviously, Calvin's apparent curiosity turns violent, and the crew's number dwindles. The creature goes through multiple stages of evolution over the course of the film. It begins to be visible to the naked eye as something that looks akin to a budding flower, complete with appendages that look like leaves, and it subsequently transforms into something like a crawling plant, a floating squid, and a stingray with a hooded head that has the distinct resemblance of a cobra. Its feeding process is gruesomely displayed by means of an unfortunate rat in the station's laboratory. The next time we see Calvin feed, luckily, we don't see the process, because the monster can squirm its way into small openings—like, say, a human mouth.
The thing is smart, too—almost diabolically so (The way it escapes its containment chamber would be comical, if not for the grotesque way it has just made Hugh remove his hand from the glove). The humans try to keep it contained, but the slippery creature moves without much hindrance through the station's atmospheric systems. They try to suffocate it in space, but the thing can hold its breath for a long time in the vacuum. Speaking of which, of all the various forms of death for the characters here, Reese and Wernick are at their most mischievous in the way they orchestrate a way for one character to drown in outer space.
Every obvious mistake, like the creature's primary motivation, can be chalked up to basic survival. If anything, that's why Calvin works so well as a monster. It's not malevolent. It's simply trying to survive, and the creature is merciless in its drive to do so. Life is merciless, too, especially in its finale, which turns out to be a shell game. There's only one logical winner in this situation.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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