Within the first week of April, scientists behind the Event Horizon Telescope, an Earth-sized array of virtual telescopes pointed spaceward, hope to take a peek into the black hole Sagittarius A*. Capturing an image of this supermassive void will undoubtedly be a significant breakthrough, one that serves to transition the idea of black holes from fantasy to visible reality. Such endeavors are exciting and fantastic, but movies like the recent alien flick Life and its space predecessors can’t help but rise to mind when it comes to the dangerous unknown that accompanies such voyages into the last frontier. But unlike the phenomena scientists are hoping to find and capture in their photos, Life is something that’s certainly been seen before.
During a lengthy opening, a multinational, star-studded team (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds) of scientists scramble to catch an incoming vessel containing soil samples from Mars that the team hopes will contain evidence of life on Mars, a wish that’s fulfilled by the presence of a hibernating organism within the soil. Amid the chaos and comments that they aren’t trained for such situations, Reynolds holds true to his comedic talent, providing relief by comparing catching the vessel with its massive mechanized arm to being a catcher in tee-ball. Throughout the impromptu interception, the camera rotates left, right and upside-down as the crew buzzes through the space station, navigating the ship at practiced paces while devoid of gravity, a disorienting sequence that only adds to the bedlam. Their actions seem calm enough in the presence of danger, but an underlying sense of panic reveals that, despite their training, space isn’t their home, and they’re out of their element.
While it begins in a hurry, Life soon slows its pace in order to develop the characters’ backgrounds, unfortunately falling into a pretty typical horror movie formula in which the audience is persuaded to become attached to the characters through emotional events before the space pioneers are inevitably picked off. But with a six-member crew confined to such a small space, each with distinct personalities and backgrounds to learn about, there’s just not enough time to make a connection with the characters before the action picks back up. Some have newborn children, some have physical disabilities and some simply prefer space to the harsh reality of Earth, but each trait only seems to serve as an anchor for their entire character as opposed to providing fully fleshed-out individual stories.
One of the best performances from the crew comes not from one of the top-billed actors but from Ariyon Bakare, playing English scientist Hugh Derry. Performing his profession as a biologist perhaps too well, Derry looks to understand as much as possible about the alien organism, at times flying too close to the sun with his efforts. His childlike curiosity, meshed with a parental archetype towards the creature, creates one of the more complicated personalities found in the movie.
With the alien specimen (an organism dubbed Calvin in accordance with a vote from an elementary school back on Earth) now aboard the International Space Station, all hell breaks loose when Calvin becomes a bit too smart for his own good. Calvin’s biological makeup allows it to operate as what is described as “all muscle, all brain and all eye,” qualities that rapidly evolve it into a strong, intelligent foe. But despite the traits assigned to Calvin to make the threat unique, the movie begins to feel quite familiar. Quarantine Officer Dr. Miranda North (Ferguson) isolates crew members close to Calvin if saving them would endanger the rest of the group, while Calvin looks to squeeze through roaring engines and tools, and such weapons as electrical prods and flamethrowers are used by the crew to retaliate. Mix these pieces together and there exists some striking similarities to 1979’s Alien, the movie that spawned countless successors imitating the claustrophobic, space-slasher story line.
But there are some areas in which Life succeeds on its own. Striking a balance between little green invaders and Xenomorphs is tough when designing aliens, and Calvin’s biology is unique enough to appeal to alien buffs. Flipping and gliding like a starfish made of flubber, Calvin would almost be cute if it weren’t actively hunting the dwindling crew. It’s evident Calvin feels comfortable in the zero-gravity environment the scientists still struggle in, propelling itself through tight corridors and using its surroundings to its advantage as it evolves.
Calvin is noticeably different from the earthlings, but some similarities are drawn between the two sides that make them seem closer despite their backgrounds and appearances. When the scientists initially think it a good idea to begin poking and prodding an alien lifeform to elicit a response, they note with surprise that Calvin’s curiosity outweighs its fear as it responds to their stimuli. But curiosity trumping caution is the very thing that unleashes the wrath of Calvin, as biologist Derry slaves over Calvin to the point of exhaustion. This causes him to inadvertently neglect safety procedures and alter Calvin’s climate, putting the organism back into hibernation, an accident Calvin likely perceives as an attack. Derry later notes, even after being attacked by Calvin, that the alien doesn’t hate the crew, it just has to eliminate them to guarantee its survival.
Its biological urge to survive surfaces again when the crew baits it into their traps with oxygen candles as Calvin chooses the oxygen over an easy kill, prioritizing its biological needs appropriately. An interesting juxtaposition is made between Calvin and the crew when Dr. North expresses that she truly hates Calvin, an emotion presumably unknown to the alien. The dialogue and comparisons dance around portraying Calvin and the humans as not so different from one another, but the effort doesn’t quite connect without establishing more depth to Calvin, and it ends up still being just a typical alien foe.
Whatever scientists end up finding with the Event Horizon Telescope, there are worse things out there than seeing a Calvin. In a time where space films are in high demand, new attempts have to bring something truly out of this world and innovative to the table in order to be successful. Some fail at launch, and some blast off into deep space, but Life finds itself somewhere in between, comfortably orbiting between “not bad” and “good.”