This is a movie review, if you will induge me.
WARNING: There are tons of SPOILERS ALERTS, so don’t continue reading one more word if you don’t want to know! First go see the movie, and then y’all come back here and read my review, got it?
“Life” is a movie within the general species of “Horror/Slasher” film, of the subspecies “Space Monster”. The horror consists of watching likable people get killed off, one by one, and wondering who gets it next. All we can know for sure is that the sole survivor at the end will be the plucky Final Girl. Right?
I like to watch space movies, particularly ones with positive Russian characters. Which are all too rare in American cinema, in this new Cold War climate that we live in. I don’t demand that the Russian be the central hero — if it’s, say, an American movie, then American audiences want to see an American action-hero, and that’s okay — only that the Russian not be denigrated. Or ignored, as in that Hollywood abomination “Gravity“, which couldn’t bring themselves to admit that it was mostly Russians who had built the International Space Station.
In “Life”, which takes place in the not-too-distant future, could actually be tomorrow or next week, the 6-member crew of the ISS includes a positive Russian character. Her name and title are Mission Commander Ekaterina Golovkina, played by Belorussian actress Olga Dihovichnaya. If this were a Hollywood movie, then Golovkina would be a beautiful but drunken prostitute, that’s the only way that Hollywood knows how to portray Russian women. Ignoring the fact that it was the Russians/Soviet who in fact sent the first strong-female character into space. And I don’t know if it was by design or just happy accident, but Dihovichnaya physically resembles Tereshkova. Unlike Tereshkova (who is still alive and kicking at the age of 80), Golovkina, a calm and heroic presence, dies heroically (I told you there would be spoilers!), allowing herself to drown in her own spacesuit rather than allow The Monster to endanger ship and crew.
The script writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, along with Director Daniel Espinosa, sat down to pen a standard Space Monster/slasher film, and yet very cleverly inverted several Hollywood stereotypes, as we shall see.
The Janet Leigh Moment
Director Espinosa was rightfully proud of his technical achievement in the opening minutes of the film. In this interview he explains how this thrilling sequence was done in a single continuous shot. The sequence, which involves a lot of gravity-free bustling around, introduces us to the American action-hero, Flight Engineer Rory Adams, played by actor Ryan Reynolds. Adams is handsome, brave, smart and wise-cracking, we fall in love with him immediately, and assume he is going to make it to the end, or at least penultimately (knowing that the final survivor has to be a girl). But no….. Adams is actually the first of the crew to die. When asked in this other interview about killing off his most charismatic character early on, Espinosa responded: ” I thought to myself, to pursue this noir idea, I have to have my Janet Leigh. Ryan became my Janet Leigh.”
Okay, and just to get this out of the way, in my own little Janet Leigh moment, let me blast out all the spoilers in one fell swoop. Including that last plot twist at the very end which was done so cleverly that even I, a veteran movie-watcher, didn’t see it coming! So, here is a list of the seven carbon-based victims and the order and means of their respective deaths at the hands, er, tentacles, of the monster named Calvin:
- Ratty McRatface, the Lab Rat – Calvin just consumes him alive in one gulp, whiskers and all.
- Flight Engineer Rory Adams – Calvin does a Greg Louganis down Rory’s throat and consumes his organs from within.
- Mission Commander Ekaterina Golovkina – Calvin crawls into her space suit and rips one of the pipes, causing her to drown in her own coolant.
- Exobiologist Dr. Hugh Derry – Calvin munches on his beefy paraplegic thigh, sending the doc into cardiac arrest.
- Engineer Hiroyuki Sanada – Calvin just grabs this token Japanese astronaut and eats him unceremoniously, like a big chunk of human sushi.
- Quarantine Officer Dr. Miranda North – was supposed to be the “sole girl survivor” but just dies alone and screaming in deep space, having ironically quarantined herself.
- Medical Officer Dr. David Jordan – actually he doesn’t die, he survives at the end, but not in a hip-hip-hurray kind of way….
Calvin’s Biography and Biology
“Calvin” acquires his name when cute children from an American school (who are adorably interested in, and following, the news on the Space Station) decide to name this Martian organism after their school. Which, I am guessing, would be Calvin Coolidge Elementary or Middle School. The backstory is that a robot digging around on Mars discovered, in a core soil sample, what appears to be a fossilized single-cell organism. The sample was placed in a probe and sent to the ISS for analysis. That whole business with the opening sequence involved the probe almost being lost after hitting space debris, and everybody having to scramble to rope it in in a single camera shot. See, otherwise, the probe would have flown off into deep space, and Calvin would have never been brought to life. And then the movie would only be 10 minutes long, but at least everybody would still be alive.
Meanwhile Dr. Miranda North, the Quarantine Officer, is tasked by her bosses back on Earth with a single task: Under no circumstances is she to allow this alien life form to escape its sealed lab environment, let alone make it all the way back to Earth. Because the consequences would be … unforeseeable…
Initially Calvin is just a little chap, a single ovoid cell in a petri dish. He is so tiny that the astronauts have to coo at him through a microscope. For millions of years, Calvin was lying dormant and possibly even dead, in the frozen Martian soil. ISS Exobiologist Dr. Hugh Derry, who is an African-British kind of guy, plus he’s a paraplegic, so I guess you could call him a twofer — tenderly and maternally interacts with the alien organism. Calvin is placed in a hermetic glass tank kind of thing, in a nutrient bath and environment with an “early Mars” kind of theme. It’s one of those biocontainment type tanks, where Derry inserts his gloved hand through one of those gasket thingamodoodies. That way, there is no chance in hell that Calvin can possibly escape his sealed environment… Well, like every monster movie, from Godzilla to Jurassic Park, unfortunate events get set into motion by human hubris and human folly. And by the way, just as a friendly suggestion, the ISS needs to have a self-blow-up switch, like the first Starship Enterprise did. You know, just in case this sort of thing should happen in real life….
Anyhow, at this stage in his development, Calvin’s signature feature is the thickness of his cell wall. The astronauts coo and marvel: “Why, the little guy has such a thick cell wall!” All the better to grow up big and strong and eat all of youse, my dearies.
But he’s not quite alive yet. For the longest time Calvin just lies very still. He is either dead, or pining for the Martian fjords. Then, with everybody watching him intently, he suddenly twitches. Everybody goes: “Ah! It’s alive!” Mary Shelley’s ghost shakes her head sadly. Under Derry’s TLC, Calvin really perks up. Next thing you know, single-celled Calvin is multi-celled Calvin. He buds a tiny little pink flagella type thingie, a proto-tentacle. And everybody coos: “He’s so beautiful!” They’ll soon be eating their words. Literally. Derry puts his hand through the gasket to affectionately pet Calvin with his gloved index finger….
Anybody who ever took a writing course knows the famous dictum of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, as he explained to wannabe writers the concept of “precursoring”. Namely, if you have a major scene and plot point in which your lead character suddenly grabs a gun and shoots himself — well, then, as a writer it was your duty to have shown and discussed this gun in an earlier scene. You should be subtle about it, not ham-fisted, but the audience does need to know that the gun was there all along and not suddenly brought onto the stage as an afterthought: “Oh lookie here, I just happen to have this gun.”
Along those lines, “Life” precursored the rat’s ghastly demise. Several times. At odd intervals in the editing process we were shown this large rat straining at his harness in what appears to be (I’m still not sure about this) an open cage right there in the space lab. Frankly, I found this image more disturbing than anything else in this movie. Why such cruelty to an animal? What was this rat even doing there in the first place? And why the harness? What kind of sick people are these astronauts? Some kind of space-faring Christian Grey into Rodent BDSM… ?
On a second viewing with a friend, it was explained to me that (1) The rat is there probably as a control for their experiments with Calvin; possibly also as a bellwether for oxygen levels; and (2) the harness is necessary so Ratty doesn’t go floating away. Space station, low gravity, duh?
Be that as it may, Ratty becomes Calvin’s first victim, once the latter escapes from his impregnable containment tank. Within seconds of eating Ratty, Calvin doubles in size. Seems like he has the ability to absorb and transform organic matter instantly. He’s not like some python who takes a month or so to digest his meal.
See, aside from sprouting tentacles at the drop of a dime, Calvin’s other main biological feature is that he has a genetic predisposition to put on weight – everything he eats is instantly converted to fatty tentacle. In his defense, Calvin burns a lot of calories, zipping all over the ship, buggering up ventilation shafts and getting into every crevice, like some demon cat. But still, his appetite is so ravenous that we soon come to understand why there is no life left on Mars: Calvin ate everybody else!
And, Dear Readers, I know that you have the same question that I do: Now that he has made it to Earth, where a giant Smorgasbord awaits him, is Calvin going to … er… how can I say this delicately? — reproduce? And if so, how does he actually … er… do it? And will Dr. David Jordan be playing some kind of (ugh) role in said process?
These are all valid questions, inquiring minds want to know, but I reckon we’ll just have to wait for the sequel….
[THE END — of “Life” as we know it??]