Daniel Espinosa recycles the idea of an invasive alien life form in "Life." It doesn’t hate humans, just finds them nutritious.
Jake Gyllenhaal as David Jordan on a desperate mission Photo: Sony
Humans are used to seeing themselves as monopolists at the bottom of the food chain. Scientifically, this has since been disputed, but the image of the creature at the top persists. And natural enemies have become extremely rare: As a rule, we know how to defend ourselves. Nevertheless, the fear of becoming the prey of a superior opponent, even if only as a breeding ground for his offspring, remains. Director Ridley Scott put this fear into perspective particularly well in his science fiction horror classic "Alien" from 1979.
In the image of the alien, who does not negotiate – possibly cannot even communicate in human language – and makes short work of his victims, other fears are of course condensed, above all that of the alien and the other as such. Nevertheless, one can take the eating and being eaten thing quite literally, at least when it comes to the new contribution to the topic, strongly inspired by "Alien", which the Chilean-Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa is now bringing to the cinema: "Life".
The title sounds innocuous, but seems to carry a sinister meaning in its inversion: life can quickly turn into death if you’re not careful. During the space mission that "Life" tells about, it quickly becomes clear that the astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS), which serves as the setting for the action, rightly have to fear for their own lives. In the near future, the ISS embarks on the "Mars Pilgrim 7 Mission" to recover a damaged Mars probe complete with Martian samples.
Espinosa stages this opening scene, in which the probe is intercepted on its lurching course with gripper arms, as a continuous tracking shot through the ISS’s tube system, in which the crew moves elegantly floating on all spatial axes thanks to weightlessness. Here, the people are still completely among themselves in their inner species perspective.
Calvin is baptized
Sharp cuts begin in the very next scene. Microbiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) has a tiny organism collected by the probe under the microscope, examines it for signs of life, stimulates it, initially without success. Eventually it works, the single-celled structure moves, begins to grow. In its early stage, the thing looks like a cross between a jellyfish and a plant flower. Espinosa used slime molds, single-celled organisms that exhibit characteristics of both fungi and animals, as a model. Derry christened his foundling Calvin.
However, this Calvin soon proves to be extremely versatile and strong. During his experiments, Derry, shielded by protective gloves, makes physical contact with the presumed Martian being. The thus addressed one grabs courageously. Afterwards Derry’s hand is mud.
From then on it is clear that Calvin is not to be trifled with. In the meantime, the creature continues to grow into a roach-like creature, and the number of its victims also increases. As in "Alien", the whole thing boils down to a hunt in which the entire human crew is on the side of the hunted. This is exciting, but somewhat predictable in the sequence of chase scenes and moments of retreat in which the crew desperately considers how to get rid of the unwanted guest.
The characters also remain largely restrained in their contours. Neither Rebecca Ferguson as mission leader Dr. Miranda North nor Jake Gyllenhaal as ship’s doctor David Jordan are allowed to really express their roles in order to leave a lasting impression. Aryion Bakare alone provides his Hugh Derry with an almost childlike fascination of the scientist. It is Derry who pronounces the central sentence of the script. When he realizes that Calvin is using human bodies as hosts and "feeding" on them, Derry says, almost with relieved certainty, "Calvin doesn’t hate us, but he needs us to survive."
"Life." Directed by Daniel Espinosa. With Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and others. USA 2017, 103 min.
From now on, the mission has a different goal: to prevent Calvin from arriving on Earth and destroying all life there. With Derry’s perspective, however, the film brings something like a posthuman point of view into play: Suppose Calvin were to arrive on Earth and destroy all life there in the name of his own continued existence – what then? Would that be a bad thing? On the other hand, even if one were to adopt such a stance: Why would it be okay if, by chance, a life form other than humans threatened existing life?
Possibly the ethical dilemma in "Life" is not meant so seriously. That would leave a cynical end-of-humanity posing, wrapped up in a somewhat awkward, but always exciting horror thriller. With the ISS as an ominous reference to reality.