One of the protagonists in Life is a doctor who has grown to hate people because he’s seen the worst they are capable of – at one point he dismisses the planet as 7 billion [expletive]s – and this misanthropic opinion is clearly shared by the film’s creators who have served-up one mean movie. That said, it is a mean movie that is a lot of fun to watch. Just don’t go to the theater expecting a meditative cosmic thriller à la Gravity, go expecting Friday the 13th in space.
The beginning of the movie – and its rather lofty title – rose my expectations for the thematic punch Life had in store. The space probe sent to mine Mars for life is call “The Pilgrim” and the organism the astronauts discover is christened “Calvin” after President Calvin Coolidge. These monikers come with interesting connotations: The early European colonizers who fought and displaced Native Americans and the president hundreds of years later who granted citizenship to America’s indigenous people. With names like these, one might expect an exploration of the complicated mixture of curiosity, fear, violence, and cooperation that occurs when one form of life slams into another. However, just as the first handshake between man and Martian rapidly devolves into a gruesome appendage-pulverizing attack, the film quickly abandons all thematic heft and goes full space slasher instead.
Calvin is described as “all-muscle, all-eye, all-brain” and Life is all-muscle and all-eye; the action and the visuals are great, but the brain – any intellectual message – gets lost. As a horror film, it works. Calvin is a genuinely scary threat and the stakes of being anywhere near him are made clear. The alien has Michael Myers-esque invincibility, but the ridiculousness of this horror trope is lessened because Calvin is not unkillable due to some ineffable dark magic, he is unkillable because the astronauts at his mercy know very little about him, including how to kill him. The decision-making in Life also raises it a bit above the average slasher film. The circumstances under which the characters find themselves continually facing the monster they are fleeing are never as frustratingly contrived as in most horror pictures.
The film is fast-paced and exciting, and director Daniel Espinosa often uses the ambiguity of hectic action scenes to increase the audience’s unease. Fast cuts, flashing lights, and exploding set pieces become disorienting and we find ourselves in the shoes of the crew – not entirely sure what’s going on. Occasionally, this frenetic direction gives way to pure confusion. Sometimes it’s not clear where things are in relation to other things, and I may have blinked and missed an explanation, but there is a big rat in a little vest that the camera continually cuts to with no hint as to where the rat is or what information it is supposed to be conveying.
The disorienting direction pays-off big in the thrilling final minutes of the film, but as the credits role and the excitement wanes, there remains the lingering aftertaste of mean-spiritedness. What did these people do to deserve this? The characters in this film are only ever motivated by their best intentions – never by selfishness or power or hubris – and yet they are continually punished with graphic, horrifying violence. Is this what humanity deserves for being curious or cautious or caring? What message is the audience meant to take home? As near as I can tell, the most salient message is this: if the little organism you found on Mars is hibernating, let it hibernate.