Two very important things dropped this past month: Drake’s smorgasbord of (appropriated?) accents, More Life. And, Daniel Espinosa’s sci-fi horror flick, Life. While there may be no absurdly direct connection between the two, I figured it was worth mentioning. So let’s talk about the movie, eh?
Life centers on a select group of folks working in the International Space Station (ISS). Tasked with studying soil samples from a months-long expedition in Mars, they soon end up in deep shit when the live specimen they resuscitate starts getting real aggressive.
Off top, I’m happy that Life didn’t share an opening month with Alien: Covenant. They were originally scheduled to be released within a weekend of each other. However, folks decided to push Ridley Scott’s next xenomorph chapter to May. This is great because both films can breathe on their own. This is especially true because Life is a rhetorical story on the human condition masquerading as a lost-in-space flick.
Life is a standard “haunted house in space” scenario, which of course was patented by Alien. (Remember when I said I wouldn’t compare these franchises? I lied.) Life differs from Alien in that it doesn’t totally focus on the horrific experience of the “and then there were none” situation. In these types setups, larger existential moments are overpowered by exposition and monster-hunting or hunt-by-monster. The audience is geared to look for the next rush, or, fear the next kill. There’s little time to actually think about the why, the what and the how of the encounter itself.
Granted, this is a bit of a generalization. Alien’s subtext is all about the Weyland-Yutani corporation’s capitalistic and narcissistic pursuits. Even in Aliens, the entire point is that the movie needs to get Ripley on LV-426 in order to put her in peril. Without going on too much, my point is this: the setup for a monster to appear is prioritized over why we’re facing monsters in the first place. Life focuses more on prioritizing why our heroes face a monster, why they die and what it all means.
“Calvin,” the Martian, is introduced very early on in the film. We’re then rapidly guided through its evolution as it stalks and murders each of the crew members. Cool. Nothing out of the ordinary here. But what’s interesting is how and why most of the crew members meet their end. It all starts with the first death: our boy, Roy (Ryan Reynolds.)
After an atmospheric fuckup in the lab, Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) attempts to “wake Calvin up” from its defensive hibernation using an electrical prod. This causes Calvin to attack, breaking the living shit out of Hugh’s hand and causing him to blackout. Calvin then snaps the probe and escapes its habitat, running amok in the lab. In a moment of desperation Roy breaks protocol by entering the lab. In the ensuing switcheroo, he gets Hugh to safety only to then become Calvin’s new prey. Of course, he’s then murderized via deez tentacles in ya mouf. On the surface this scene is a basic expositional moment. It establishes Calvin’s lethality, intelligence and the obstacle it presents to the crew. But if we look deeper, it’s the first window into how Life explores its deeper themes: survival and sanctity of life.
Roy’s reasoning for saving Hugh is informed by an earlier discussion, wherein Hugh freaks everyone out with his obsession over Calvin. In a jokingly serious tone, Roy exclaims “that thing isn’t your buddy — I’m your buddy.” This narrative idea, of human life over unknown alien lifeforms, is important. It establishes a thread of questioning the very exploration of space itself. Why are we, as humans, so obsessed with finding life on other planets? Why do we have the hubris to think that said life is somehow malleable to our will, or subject to our whims? What do we put at risk when we fail to respect the survival instincts of other life forms, who owe us nothing? One by one, these questions are answered, and punctuated, by the deaths in the film.
In Roy’s case, it’s all about the sanctity of human life and the danger of obsession. He only dies because he believed Hugh didn’t need to. It’s a natural human instinct, for sure. And it’s counterpointed by his disgust at Hugh’s ability to be so absorbed by his projections onto Calvin. Hugh sees a limitless future of scientific possibility in the Martian life form. So much so that he allowed his obsession to overtake his first objective: protecting the human lives onboard the ISS. Clearly everybody ends up paying for it. But what about the question of immediately protecting life? The second death, Katerina’s (Olga Dihovichnaya,) is pertinent here.
After Roy’s death, Katerina does a spacewalk to fix a malfunction on the ISS. However, the crew learns that Calvin caused the issued by eating portions of their fuel. Calvin then attacks, leaving Katerina marooned outside. Despite this, the crew tries to save her by opening the hatch and finding a way to detach Calvin from Katerina’s suit. This proves to be a fatal decision: allowing Katerina in also lets Calvin back into the ISS (but the gag is Calvin gets in later anyway.) Knowing this, Katerina actively works against David to open the hatch whilst drowning in her own coolant fluid, which Calvin had breached by constricting her suit. She ultimately floats away into space while Calvin jettisons itself back towards the ISS.
Katerina’s death is unique in that it’s only one of two directly-conscious choices to die in the film (the second being David’s at the end, and the indirect third being Sho’s.) It’s important to note this because it highlights motivation: Katerina understood the risks and made a decision that would (hopefully) save human life. While it’s ultimately futile in the larger narrative, it still has impact. And Life takes time to show it: David is completely broken by her death and the crew struggles to regroup. This isn’t unique though. Almost every death in this movie gets space to breathe. Characters mourn and, well, act like real human beings. It’s a lean into dramatic territory that’s often lost in many modern horror movies. Lately, many horror films produce horrific experiences by focusing on the act and methods of killing vs. the impact of character’s deaths themselves.
More on this later though…
What of self-preservation? Let’s look at Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada,) the ISS pilot. Rounding the third act, the crew is split up after Calvin sucks the blood a’ Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Barrington outta Hugh. David (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) find safety in the bridge while Sho narrowly escapes Calvin by locking himself in a sleeping pod. After assessing that it can’t break the pod, Calvin slinks away.
Later, the “third firewall” appears as a thruster pod that attaches to the ISS to push it into deep space; as part of the CDC, Miranda had created safety measures in the event that Calvin was indeed dangerous. Sadly, this plan wasn’t privy to everyone. So, Sho sees it as a rescue pod. Unaware that Miranda and David are trying to starve Calvin by isolating it in the chamber adjacent to this pod, Sho makes a mad dash to freedom. Right beforehand, he says “I’m coming home to you, Mei,” referring his newborn child.
In this case, Sho’s character motivation is about saving his own skin by extension. More specifically though, it’s about survival for the sake of protecting new, human life. If he can escape, he could warn Earth and safeguard his family. Sadly this decision, like Rory’s, gets him violently murdered by Calvin. While Sho’s death is partially about narrative information, I’d argue it’s more about that need to survive. Like Calvin, Sho simply wants to live. However, his means of choosing life – frantic escape – makes him prey. Inversely, Calvin’s methods of survival always make it a predator. This dynamic engenders a deep sense of a hopelessness in this scene. We know Sho ain’t gonna make it, but he doesn’t. And when he does realize he’s toast, he can only work to do what’s best: sacrifice himself to hopefully save the next human’s life.
All of these examples, paired with the emotional impact (and space given to experience said impact) allow Life to be really fuckin’ scary. And not simply because Calvin is a terrifying, amoral apex predator. Rather, it’s because they all highlight the fragile and tense relationships that humans have with life itself. We’re constantly at risk of losing it and we often find new ways to ensure our own destruction.
Life takes its time without skimping out on revealing a monster, developing pathos for characters or simply giving you a thrilling experience. It differs from its more horror-centric peers in that, much like Europa Report, it focuses more on the impact of the crew’s deaths than it does on the mystery of the monster. I’d argue Life distinguishes itself by actually trying to reduce as much mystery as possible from the outset. This helps us focus on its deeper themes without getting caught up. It’s a great move that lets Life mix genres without sacrificing too much in the name of entertainment.
Thus, in the pantheon of “holy shit space is scary and maybe let’s just focus on saving the polar bears,” Life is a great addition. It’s left me as paranoid about Mars as I am about what subculture Drake will gleefully soft-appropriate next. And as far as horror movies go, that’s not too bad.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter