There have been several sci-fi films in the past, like ‘Alien’ and ‘Gravity’, that center around ‘space mission gone wrong’. While ‘Life’ also tries to tread a similar path, it also gets progressively darker. At this point, you might ask: ‘Haven’t we had enough of this?’ – Well the answer is ‘No’. ‘Life’ works best as a rejuvenating take on humanity confronting otherworldly life forms – initially with curious explorations only to later realize the ‘death trap’ such curiosities can cause. With a premise that might seem like it is going to rest on clichés, ‘Life’ surprises you from the moment we get to see the ‘alien’ life form designed to look like a ‘living Hibiscus’ made of glass. As we move further into the story, the dread slowly crawls up our spines as the friendly life form (whose eyes or face for that matter cannot be seen or located) wrecks gory havoc across the space shuttle with scenes that leave us gasping for breath.
The international space station captures a space probe which is returning from Mars, after collecting soil samples. The probe is unmanned while the space station has a 6-member crew specialized in various fields and on a quest to find extraterrestrial life forms. The probe returns with a ray of hope as the crew locate a dormant single cell organism in it. The exobiologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), finds himself more connected to this unknown visitor from space and nurtures it in his special lab. The single cell organism quickly grows into a multi-cell organism, resembling some transparent algae – the design optimized to incite a liking towards the creature from the moment we lay our eyes on it. (Clever play considering what is to come!)
The organism is further analyzed and studied by the biologist as he makes a unique observation about the organism’s cellular structure. The cells act as muscles, sensors, and neurons at the same time. As the exobiologist further administers more experimental tests on Calvin (yes they named it!), the creature grasps the scientist’s arms with its tentacles where he realizes that the organism has supernatural strength even in its primitive state. Calvin continues to grow as he is fed with life-sustaining supplements.
On one of the days in the lab, Calvin is found dormant again. Unable to fight his disappointment Dr. Hugh tries to shock the organism with a probe. The sudden electric shock renders the organism to become hostile and it attacks. It twists Hugh’s hand and breaks the bones by crushing it effortlessly. Reminding us very much of the iconic ‘alien mouth latch’ scene from ‘Alien’, Calvin swirls its tentacles around any object before crushing it into fragments. As Hugh suffers severe pain, he becomes unconscious while Calvin uses his electric shock probe to free itself from the enclosure. As we watch waiting to know what this little monstrosity has up its sleeves, it goes into a lab cubicle where a rat can be seen. Calvin prowls around it like a piece of polythene cover before squeezing the life out of it clarifying another of its super strengths – absorbing organic tissue within seconds of coming into contact.
Calvin’s next victim is the ISS engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds). As Dr. Hugh’s lies in the lab, unconscious Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) enters the lab in time and pulls his unconscious body out of the lab. He doesn’t realize the presence of Calvin until he is quarantined inside the lab as safety protocols are initiated by another team member, Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal).
What ensues is probably Calvin’s best display of dexterous killer instincts. Calvin floats around the lab’s wall as a confident Rory is seen burning it with a flamethrower. Impervious to fire, Calvin continues to play hide and seek with Rory before appearing out of nowhere to slide into Rory’s mouth. Rory starts chocking blood as Calvin ravages inside him as his body sways from side to side in quick jerky motion. Rory’s eyes become lifeless slowly as blood slurps out from his ears and nose into the room floating around like small balls in red. Calvin exits through Rory’s mouth proving its might as the ultimate killing machine, noticeably larger in size now. As what is left of the crew watches, Calvin escapes through an air vent. With danger hiding in plain sight, the members try and plot their next move – Contact Earth.
With the communication systems turning dysfunctional due to overheating, Ekaterina Golovikana, ISS mission commander played by Olha Dihovichnaya decides to exit the station and do a spacewalk to fix the problem. She is however attacked by Calvin who ruptures the cooling system in her suit. This causes Ekaterina’s suit helmet to get filled with the coolant. With blurred vision and partial suffocation, she finds her way to the airlock. Knowing that if she enters the station, then Calvin will too, she decides to lock the airlock from outside, sacrificing her life for her crew, as she drowns in the coolant leaving a helpless David to merely stand back and watch.
With Calvin now trying to re-enter the station through the thrusters, the crew decides to fire the thrusters as an attempt to blast Calvin away from the station. This however fails and leads to fuel wastage. Sho, the Japanese System Engineer played by Hiroyuki Sanada advises against the same. The station now ends up in what is called a ‘decaying orbit’ where the space station stands the risk of burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. The only solution that the crew decides on is to isolate Calvin by getting everyone else into a single module. By doing so, Sho can vent the atmosphere from the rest of the shuttle, making it hard for Calvin to thrive.
However, the plan doesn’t work well since midway Calvin reappears. The heart-wrenching scene has Hugh going into a cardiac arrest. While attending to Hugh, the crew realizes that Calvin has been surviving on Hugh’s paralyzed leg. Realizing this, Sho finds himself a sleeping pod to escape from the now fully grown Calvin. Calvin latches on to the glass on the pod before getting distracted by David’s attempt to lure him towards Hugh’s corpse.As the scene escalates with the crew trying to isolate Calvin into a module deprived of oxygen, we see the entry of ‘Soyuz spacecraft’ sent from Earth, as a response to a distress call received prior to the damage that wrecked the shuttle’s communication systems.
Calvin is quick to attack the passengers in the Soyuz taking the life of Sho while ravaging the craft. With only two personnel left in the space station, Calvin decides to make his final move. David and Miranda, the CDC quarantine officer played by Rebecca Fergusson, concoct their final plan to put an end to the monstrosity. Since there were only two escape pods left, David decides to isolate Calvin into one of them with him while Miranda’s pod will go back to earth making her the only survivor.
As the pods undock, one of them get hit by the debris around and makes its way to the outer space while the other one enters Earth’s atmosphere and lands in the waters of Vietnam. In a quick turn of narrative, we realize that the expected pod to Earth has gone off into space while the one with Calvin has landed where it should never have. Unable to withstand the damage caused due to the debris, Miranda’s pod’s navigation system gets damaged spiraling her away into the depths of space. Much to his horror, David, realizing the situation, warns the fishermen not to open the pod. But, the opposite happens, and we are left on a cliffhanger.
Calvin – A closer look
Even though you might have thought that Calvin had the least inventive design to portray an alien, the story behind the designing process does justify the final look and feel of the flowery Martian. The director has mentioned that Calvin is like a baby, its design was done keeping in mind that it should connect the viewer directly to the concept of ‘Origin of life’. If you are to look at Calvin as the simplest form of life, in all its beauty then it will be reminiscent of our ‘biology’ classes where we have heard of how Life started out as a single cell and found its expansion to what it is today. So the vision behind Calvin’s design was to introduce him as a speck of life and then diabolically transform him for the audience to reinterpret weather every form of life is as ‘simple’ as it looks in the beginning.
Calvin’s design subconsciously works on us by defining the inexplicable possibilities ‘Life’ adapts for survival. That is what Calvin stands for that. At the end of the day, however beautiful the origin of life looks like, what really matters is how does it adapt so that it can survive. Hence Calvin’s kill spree is a mere survival tactic, an instinctual part of its DNA (if it has DNA that is!). And if analyzed further, it is, in fact, a very strong concept. Life thrives if and only if it adapts for survival. Of course, we do have aliens who are wiser and more patient, like the ones from ‘Arrival’ but Calvin stands out as the true representative of the phenomena that is Life. Calvin fights its way out and refuses to go down – its tactics are lethal but hey – its only for ‘survival’.
The curious case of David Jordan
Before I dissect the ending, I want to discuss one person who, from what seems like an ‘expendable crew’, is very uniquely presented in the film. I am talking about David Jordan. He comes across as a soft-spoken and composed space lover. Peripherally there is nothing odd about him. But stringing together his own preference of the cosmos over civilization triggers a crucial question about his character. Why does Jordan love to live in space? Early on in the movie he says, he likes it there (space). For someone who manages to come across as a harmless and friendly personality, his love for space can be interpreted as a wanting to live a secluded life, an aversion towards a social life, a disregard for humanity. This, however, cannot be proved; although the theory cannot be dismissed completely either. David’s shady personality trait can be a figment of our imagination but his reemergence from the escape pod intact is suspiciously surprising. Why didn’t Calvin kill him? David’s decisive plan to let Miranda escape to Earth and himself to outer space also ended up with a ‘ship swap’.
If you read between the lines, there is something fishy that runs deep in David’s character proving him to be at least a gray character, if not an outright villain. Did he really plan for Calvin to land on Earth? We can only get to know the answer to that question if ever a sequel gets made — which at this point looks highly unlikely due to Life’s mediocre box-office performance.
As the remaining escape pods set their respective trajectories, one towards Earth and the other to outer space, ‘Life’ finally seems like it is resolving the ‘issue at hand’. As David’s pod undocks and takes off, we see him face to face with Calvin who slowly wraps itself around David. Miranda’s pod is hit by debris which damages the navigational system. As we look on, one of the pods enters Earth’s atmosphere, exhilarating ahead. Coming closer to Earth’s surface it deploys the support chutes and lands in the waters, somewhere in Vietnam.
Watching the pod drop from a distance are a couple of fishermen who look on with surprise, eventually moving towards the pod. As they look inside, they find David encased in a web of tentacles. David can be seen screaming saying not to open the pod. A quick flip-flop between the two pods shows us Miranda screaming and spiraling away into space. The fishermen open the pod and we are left with an ambiguous shot from above as the rescue continues. The shot leaves us on a cliffhanger, probably the darkest one – with a conscious attempt to leave us in suspense or as a full on one to herald the coming of a sequel.
The ending was uniformly loved by the cast and most by the director who signed the film for its ‘noir’ ending. Being a great fan of the ‘noir’ genre, director Daniel Espinosa wanted the film to have a dark and suspenseful climax which would evoke more unsettling thoughts in the mind of the viewer. Will Calvin survive on earth? Will it reproduce or grow stronger? Well, it did work! Life is one of the few movies successful in building for itself a favorable environment for a possible sequel.
For a sci-fi film having to introduce a new Alien species, ‘Life’, in fact, does a remarkable job. Calvin for sure has more screen time than most members of the cast and don’t be surprised if it finds itself among the list of famous movie aliens. We will have to wait and see if we will ever get to know whether Calvin evolves further and creates havoc on Earth or it self-destroys itself. Start the petition for a sequel already!