Certificate 15, 104 minutes
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds
Life is a technohorror film set in the near now. It opens with a probe travelling through space when it encounters a (rather improbably, outside a comet’s tail) dense patch of (ridiculously large) bits of rock. In reality, enough to completely destroy it, but this is not reality.
It then switches to the International Space Station, on Day 1 of the Mars Pilgrim 7 (the probe seen earlier) recovery mission, with a voice over by the quarantine officer, Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson). Pilgrim 7 has been on an eight month mission (quite short really for the distances involved) and is heading back to Earth with Martian soil samples. The probe was damaged by the impacts seen earlier, and is off course and tumbling. The ISS is being moved slightly out of the way, as currently Pilgrim 7 is on a collision course, and astronaut Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is going on a spacewalk to control the robot arm from outside the ISS to try and catch the incoming probe.
If the probe isn’t caught, it should hopefully just skip off the Earth’s atmosphere and head back out into space. Actually landing the samples on Earth is not something being considered, due to potential biological threats, and that is why Dr. North is on board, to ensure the firewall protocols for the samples are maintained. Rory manages to successfully catch Pilgrim 7, naturally enough.
On Day 2 of the mission, Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) examines the samples brought back. It was believed that signs of life were seen on Mars, and now he is able to confirm this. There is a single-celled organism which is currently dormant. After raising the temperature of the box that the organism is in, altering the atmospheric composition to something a bit friendlier to life than that of Mars and adding a growth medium – a glucose solution – the sample shows that it is actually alive.
By Day 12, the sample has grown substantially. It has become a small, but now definitely not microscopic, organism, made from lots of the initial cells. Each cell shows the properties of muscle tissue, nerve tissue and photoreceptor tissue – a creature that is all brain, all muscle and all eye is how it is described. It is also named “Calvin” by some schoolchildren back on Earth.
On Day 25 there is an equipment failure in the separate lab in which the organism’s box is being kept. Following this, it becomes dormant once more. Hugh makes the decision to use a mild electric current to shock it into life again. This does not go well.
Up until now, prior to its dormancy, the organism had not shown any signs of aggression. When Hugh zaps it with the electric wand, it reacts by wrapping itself around his gloved hand and breaking the wand. The grip on Hugh’s hand through the glove increases, as the rest of the station crew watch from outside the quarantined lab. Something that provokes discussion, as Rory wants to go in there and help Hugh, but that would breach the “firewalls” between the organism and Earth. Then Calvin starts breaking Hugh’s hand, eventually releasing its grip once all the bones in his hand appear to be broken. Then, in a display of quite worrying problem solving and tool manipulation, it uses the wand to break out of the containment box. Rory goes in and rescues Hugh, but winds up trapped himself in a room with a dangerous, and extremely hard to kill, hostile alien life form, becoming its first victim.
When Calvin manages to escape from the lab too, having already grown significantly, getting loose on the rest of the station, things start getting even worse. As the commander, Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), is communicating the situation to Earth, their ground link goes down. This is not a coincidence; it has been damaged by Calvin, although this would seem to be by accident rather than design. Calvin may be carbon-based life, like that of Earth, but it proves resistant to high temperature and is even able to survive and function in the vacuum of space for substantial amounts of time. If it gets down to Earth, it could prove disastrous, and initial attempts to destroy it destabilise the station’s orbit, requiring the rest of the fuel be used to keep the ISS in orbit. Things start going from bad to worse as attempts to contain Calvin continually fail, and more crew members die – and this isn’t their only problem. Given Calvin’s survival abilities, rapid growth and apparent intelligence, it is vital to make sure it doesn’t get back to Earth.
There isn’t a huge crew on the ISS, and some of them are killed off quite early, but an attempt is made to humanise them all to one degree or another, rather than have them as faceless redshirts. David North (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a former military doctor who is close to breaking the record for consecutive days spent in space. He is tired of what he saw back down on Earth as a military doctor, in places like Syria, where they’d turn up at a village, help everyone they could, and then return two weeks later to discover everyone has been wiped out. Hugh has some sort of illness that has given him atrophied legs; in space, he doesn’t need a wheelchair. Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Japanese crew member, has a wife back on Earth who is giving birth whilst he is in space. As a result, the death’s tend to mean more, as these are people rather than simply faceless entities.
The film is shot in a weightless environment, and care seems to have been taken to ensure that this is portrayed correctly. As the station gets more damages, more things start flying around loose, and blood from Calvin’s victims drifts in globules in the air. At times, the film does get a bit gory, but perhaps not as much as might be expected from its certification; that is perhaps more down to the terror shown than the gore. Scientifically, the film looks reasonably okay, with the biggest exception being the scene with the probe at the beginning. It didn’t need to fly through rocks, catching it would probably not be as easy as was shown, and the whole concept really didn’t seem to add anything to the plot.
There are probably going to be comparisons with this film, such as calling it “Gravity with monsters” or, going back a bit further, “Alien on the ISS.” These cannot really be helped. There are definite similarities to Alien – a dangerous alien creature gets loose in a confined space and starts picking off the limited crew – and having it on the ISS is naturally going to have similarities to the much more recent Gravity. There is definite action and tension as the crew tries desperately to stop Calvin, and the acting definitely works. It’s a shame that there isn’t really anything new in the film. It’s a great “trapped in a confined space with a monster” film – it looks good and the people are definite character – but that’s all it is. It really doesn’t bring anything new to the genre. Even the twist can be seen coming before it’s revealed, and it isn’t a surprising one (it is a good one, though; the film could have been a cop-out instead). Life is not really a fun film, given its nature, but it’s a good example of the genre.