Analysis

The inexplicable horrors of Life

This horror movie makes no sense. It's still really scary.

If Jurassic Park made it a point to aggressively flag science's worst tendencies, with Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Ian Malcolm offering depressive explanations of what's going wrong and what it means philosophically, Life is its opposite: This is horror stripped down to its most visceral and least theoretical core. The theater I saw it in was packed with people writhing in their seats.

The sci-fi thriller about a Martian life form brought aboard by six astronauts manning the International Space Station — directed by Daniel Espinosa of Easy Money and Safe House, and co-written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who wrote Deadpool and Zombieland — is standard fare for the genre except for one thing: It's eerily short on exposition. No one quite knows what's going on, how it's working, or how things are changing. That's partly because "Calvin," the alien organism made up of cells that remain biologically unspecialized ("all-muscle, all-brain, all-eye"), targets the specialist first. By partly incapacitating the one character — Ariyon Bakare's Dr. Hugh Derry — who could have shed some light on his developing abilities, he limits the strategies available to everyone else, and the information available to the audience.

It's bold to withhold information in this way — to resist the usual plot device whereby a scientist explains what's happening and what it means. Weird, too, that the trailers for Life provide a lot more context and sci-fi philosophizing than the film itself. This means, for one thing, that the film's "bible" has a lot more theory informing its symbolic vocabulary than the movie is willing to admit. In interviews, for instance, Espinosa offers an explanation for Calvin's evolving shape that never made it into the movie. ("What is the first thing that Calvin encounters? It's a hand. And that is why Calvin has five limbs," he says — something I wish I'd known while watching the film, though the first contact between Calvin and his human hosts did remind me of the Trumpian handshake.)

That the characters on board the ISS never hit on this or other peculiarities of Calvin's development means they're unprepared to strategically confront him. Instead, Calvin remains largely mysterious: No one knows how smart he is, or how fast he learns. It's left to the audience to puzzle over those problems: Is the alien a mimic? A strategist? Both? Did the alien deliberately target the specialist first? Is this a movie about the risks of a civilization made up of ultra-specialists rendered ineffective against a biology that's pluripotent? Or is Calvin's survival instinct a random and chaotic principle of life?

Life is about panic, in other words. Calvin learns a lot about his environment, but his human enemies — who were supposed to be studying him — learn precious little about him. The people on board the ISS have no real sense of his abilities or what he can survive. They're constantly reacting, scrambling to isolate the creature, and starve it of whatever it needs to live.

That doesn't mean the characters are dumb. Life is pretty even-handed in its treatment of its excellent cast. The usual roles — Mopey Genius, Action Maverick, Love Interest — are gestured at but quickly abandoned in favor of a warm overall camaraderie that gets established with admirable speed. Olga Dihovichnaya is terrific as the mission commander. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a disaffected doctor who sees Syria when he looks at the Earth, Hiroyuki Sanada plays a new father, and Rebecca Ferguson plays Miranda North, sent from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure the alien can't make it back to Earth. Ryan Reynolds is as close to being a maverick as this movie gets (not far).

Everyone is pleasant and smart, if also — it must be said — incredibly unprepared. In Espinosa's hands, the space station feels like it was stocked by whatever version of NASA survived Trump's budget cuts. The ship is claustrophobic, kind of dirty, and totally bereft of cool technofuturist touches. Airlocks are operated manually — no voice-activated operating systems here — and the lab is small and unambitious, with one lab rat (and one scientist) to its name. The weapons are few, the communication system is apparently edible, and the fuel supply is absurdly low. What few automated systems there are tend to malfunction.

Life is in obvious dialogue with its predecessors in alien gore: Espinosa mentions John Carpenter's The Thing, Alien, Solaris, 2001, and The Martian as reference points for what he was trying to achieve. What makes Calvin somewhat unique when it comes to this kind of body horror is the relative lack of reproductive metaphors to explain him. There are no "queens" or "swarms" here, no hints at a horrifying feminine reproductive capacity that will multiply and take over. Instead, Calvin — who's coded male — just penetrates and grows. The astronauts don't even seem to think of him as infectious. A bizarrely acquisitive monster with a hand-crushing handshake, he'll attack anything he needs to in order to survive and get bigger.

Fans of Deadpool and Zombieland might be disappointed that there aren't more wisecracks in Life, but what the dialogue lacks is more than made up for by its eerily comedic cinematography. An opening shot of the Earth reveals a set of silhouettes that look so much like several pairs of human legs that I started to get annoyed at the camera for not showing bodies or faces; those legs turned out to be the ISS. Calvin's animation is delightful, and the camera even pops into his point of view once or twice.

Then there are the shots of astronauts flying about the space station. As you watch, you start realizing that form of locomotion makes little sense in a chase sequence: How fast are they going? Can Calvin catch up?

Life might not be high art, but it's awesomely effective horror. I'm never watching it again.

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