Overview: On a recovery mission, a crew discovers life from Mars and quickly understands its potential and the gravity of the situation at horrifying length. Columbia Pictures; 2017; Rated R; 103 minutes
Initiating Sequence: Welcome aboard the International Space Station. Everyone you know is already here. You’ve met them all before on previous missions into space, maybe in Event Horizon or Alien or whatever just popped into your head right now. Here we have the “best” people the world has to offer, working together to make a significant discovery or save humankind. Which is to say, Life suffers a sort of unremarkable state of being because of its inspirations and predecessors and largely because of what we all know is coming: Alien: Covenant. The excitement of the latter has some effect on Life. The templated movie follows all the expected imagery, story, nauseating and disorienting zero-gravity footage, and character development you’d expect from any sci-fi thriller. Nevertheless, here we are in space, surrounded by familiar friends, making a discovery that is mercifully more relevant and timely for us today.
The crew at the ISS on the Mars Pilgrim 7 Mission are tasked with recovering a beacon containing soil samples from Mars that has been knocked offtrack by debris. Don’t worry. If you’re not up to speed on what’s going on out there, you’ll get a handy – if a little awkward – history lesson tucked into the film. Once Roy (Ryan Reynolds, playing some engineer version of himself with familiar sarcasm and chatter) obtains the samples and the resident scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) gets to work, it becomes known that there is, indeed, life on Mars, but it’s a single-celled organism of course, what we’ve come to expect today, instead of the tall thin green (or grey, depending on your fandom) men with insect eyes of yesteryear. This is really the most exciting part of the movie, as Hugh attempts to resurrect the organism and determine, for the first time in history, if life is viable outside of our planet, and, if so, what kind of environment is required for it to thrive. This scene holds more tension than any untethered spacewalk could hope to achieve, because of NASA’s current study of Mars; humanity is very interested in this planet right now, and that does the movie some favours. If you are someone who ponders the significance of finding life in space, you know what kind of effect this discovery would have on everything we know to be true about life. How much thought you give to that reality will inform your viewing of Life.
“This is some Re-Animator Shit”: As discovering humans tend to do, the crew takes proxy ownership of the new life by naming it. This time, an elementary school has won a contest to name this life-form and they have chosen the name Calvin. Once the correct atmosphere has been determined, Calvin begins to interact with Hugh and grow at a rapid pace from an almost-beautiful tadpole-like membrane to a sort of creepy cephalopod. Hugh fondly notes that “its curiosity outweighs its fear” but after twenty days, a lab failure has caused Calvin to hibernate. Because of his weird attachment to the creature, and in the interest of a second resurrection, Hugh attempts to zap it to life as the crew watches. This is the inevitable turning point where the alien lifeform goes from curiosity to aggression, and it is brutal and fearsome. This fear lasts a short while and is strongest because of the unknown. Nobody knows what Calvin is capable of or what his “final form” might be, but as these things become clearer, the fear gives way to a predictably cool tension punctuated by mediocre death scenes. The movie and the creature look fine, and there’s some cool horror imagery throughout but nothing really dazzles or shocks, and the film stays pretty bland all the way to its ending once it becomes a traditional game of cat and mouse.
The Players. While Olga Dihovichnaya’s Kat draws the eye with her static-electricity visage and heroic verbal delivery, what saves Life from being completely forgettable is one character: Dr. David Jordan, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. David is about to beat the record for the longest time spent in space, and his time up there shows on his body and his mind. Despite rapid deterioration, he refuses all offers or suggestions to return to earth. Not because he feels called to some grand mission, but because he simply cannot stand his home planet anymore. An ex-military doctor, he “can’t stand what we do to each other down there” and prefers to the weightless hum of the space station to the cries of human suffering. He displays the most honest reactions of the crew, reading meaningful words aloud and spending too much time by himself. In fact, it’s easy to strain for his dialogue and perspective on the situation because of his brooding presence. He routinely and quietly speaks the truth about life and the situation that nobody wants to admit but everybody knows. Unlike the rest of the stock characters, he has no wife giving birth at home. He has nothing to prove to his commanders, and he’s not hiding any dark secrets or overcoming an obvious limitation. But, as it stands, David is forced to protect a humanity he has no love for, and a planet he refuses to inhabit, and he does so with an incredible humility and understanding. This is a character that’s worth seeing and knowing more about, and one to admire.
Overall: Life brings nothing new to the table and teaches us the same lessons through science fiction that we already know through previous science fiction. Humanity will always hold a desire to go beyond and discover new things. When those things are discovered, we will manipulate them as much as we can until it no longer serves us, or until we create a hostile situation. In the end, every sacrifice made by every crew member was in vain, no matter their reasons for doing it and no matter how perfect and predictable they were in their roles. This is a movie about heroics in space, and it does its job just fine unless you’re expecting something more.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures