Saturday, April 1, 2017

Review: Life

Disclaimer: This review will contain spoilers. Don't read it unless you've already watched the movie or unless you don't care about being spoiled. I like to analyze movies, and I can't really do that unless I spoil the movie. You have been warned.

Life is a new science fiction movie about the discovery of life on Mars. A six-person crew on the International Space Station (ISS) retrieves a space probe returning from Mars with soil samples in it. Among the samples brought in is a single-celled organism, the first evidence of life on Mars. Hugh Derry, the biologist, begins studying it and it soon starts to grow. An atmospheric accident in the lab causes the growing organism (now named Calvin by school children in America) to become hostile, attacking Derry by latching onto his hand. This begins a chain of events which results in Calvin freeing itself from the containment cube, terrorizing the crew and killing them one by one.

I've read (and watched) a number of reviews of this movie, and there seems to be a lot of hate because this movie is seen as a blatant rip-off of Alien. Of course, any movie that results in an isolated crew being hunted down by an alien life form would draw that comparison. In this day and age, there truly are no original ideas (as Solomon once declared, there is nothing new under the sun). All movies are based on some prior movie(s) that came before it (or books, or plays, or some other kind of media). As far as I'm concerned, Life was a competently-made movie, and well acted. It was a good movie for what it was, even if it can draw comparisons to Alien. I consider these complaints to be unfounded and simply unfair to the movie, itself. The movie was very suspenseful, and while the death scenes were pretty gruesome, they were done well in a way that made you sympathetic with the character who was being killed. The movie never felt like it dragged. It was really well paced and ended without making me bored at all. So even though I've seen Alien, and the parallels could be mentioned, this movie is made well and there is enough different from Alien to make it a movie worth seeing. I don't regret paying to see it in the theater.

One of the most jarring things, however, was how they handled the wonder of discovering new life and the anxiety that comes with not knowing whether the new life form is friendly or hostile. They were in a scene in which Derry was using the gloves in the containment booth to examine the alien, and the crew was filled with wonder (with incidental music to match), then in the very next scene the accident comes out of nowhere and Adams was yelling at Derry because they didn't know whether the alien wanted to be friends or to kill them all. Of course, it's good to be cautious when dealing with new life, but there was no prior set-up to Adams' anxiety over this alien life. Nor was there any prior set-up to this accident. We didn't see Derry's negligence that lead to it, or even got a set-up that showed us he might have a problem with carelessness. That was the only real issue I had with the pacing. Those things just came out of left field.

One reviewer pointed out elsewhere that Calvin was supposed to be an intelligent life form, yet it was all alone there in the space station and hunting down the crew. So apparently it wasn't quite so intelligent to realize that it needed the crew alive. If it killed the crew, there would be no one to set it free. This point originally sounded good to me, but after thinking about it, it could also be seen as needing to consume the crew for food. If it didn't eat, it may have starved. So its natural need for sustenance may have won out over its intelligence in that regard. Plus, at the end we see the alien using its intelligence to keep Dr. Jordan alive, rather than consuming him, so it could make it down to the surface of Earth.

Themes

One of the themes the movie deals with is that Calvin may not be a malevolent life form, but is merely acting out its natural compulsion to consume food to survive. This led Dr. North, later in the movie, to proclaim that it doesn't make rational sense but she actually hates Calvin for what he is doing to the crew. This raised a question for me as I was watching: If this is an intelligent species that requires consuming the crew for food, did they have a right to defend themselves? Ordinarily I would say yes, of course they do, because the alien is threatening their life. But this is complicated by the fact that the crew were responsible for bringing Calvin on board. So they would have essentially been responsible for murdering an intelligent extraterrestrial being if they either killed it or allowed it to starve. Either way, they were responsible for the death of this being. So in the future, instead of trying to bring alien life to us, which may or may not be hostile, should we go exploring and look for alien life in their own environments? If not, we may be responsible for moral crimes against intelligent extraterrestrials, even if it's unintentional (and of course, this is all assuming that intelligent life really does exist elsewhere in the universe).

Something that didn't sit well with me at the beginning of the film was when Derry, while examining this new life form, explained that this new life from Mars could mean an end to stem cell research because it could turn out to be a better source for repairing human cells. This is due to the cell being a myocyte, neuron, and photoreceptor all at the same time (Dr. North explains, for the biologically uninitiated, that this means the cell is "all muscle, all brain, and all eye"). This strikes me as troubling. My first thought, when Derry was talking about this, is that he is essentially talking about killing this organism for its cells when he didn't even try to figure out if this alien belongs to an intelligent species. If it does, then it would be immoral to use them for stem cells. Of course, if Derry is referring to embryonic stem cell research, then in order to support that you have to ignore the fact that the unborn are biological members of the human species anyway, so it could be that Derry wouldn't have cared if it belonged to an intelligent species, as long as he killed it before it became what he would consider to be a valuable life form.

Conclusion

All in all, this was an enjoyable film, even if it's not exactly ground-breaking. Then again, we've also had so many films, books, television shows, and radio shows about mankind discovering alien life exists that a movie that deals with that is already going where so many science fiction stories have gone before.

So what do you think? Did you enjoy it? Hate it? Are ambivalent about it? Let me know in the comments.

Grade: B+

Reason for grade: It was a well-made movie, though it wasn't ground breaking or terribly original. It had an A-list cast, so you know the acting was good. So its lack of creativity kept me from giving it an A, but despite its lack of originality, it was still very suspenseful and an enjoyable movie to sit through. It didn't feel like it dragged at all, despite the one pacing flaw I mentioned above.

Life
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Written by: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Starring:
Ryan Reynolds as Rory Adams (pilot of the ISS)
Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. David Jordan (senior medical officer)
Rebecca Ferguson as Dr. Miranda North (quarantine officer)
Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Murakami (system engineer)
Ariyon Bakare as Hugh Derry (biologist)
Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerina Golovkina (commander of the ISS crew).

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