A cautionary tale about Martian settlement and exploration, Life takes place on the International Space Station, and follows a group of scientists and astronomers charged with investigating samples brought back from the surface of Mars. As the film begins, the crew – played, among others, by Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson – face the breathless prospect of a bacterium discovered amidst the regular soil samples. For the first part of the narrative, the world watches – via satellite and livechat – as this bacterium grows into a plasma-like organism that is nicknamed “Calvin” after the United States conducts a nation-wide competition to come up with the best moniker for the first discovered Martian organism. It’s only a matter of time, however, before Calvin grows exponentially in size and starts to stalk and devour the crew, who band together to try and flush it from the ship. Time and again, however, Calvin withstands their efforts, until it becomes clear that the only thing that will really halt its growth is the sustained deep cold of the surface of Mars itself, which was presumably what sent this rampant species into hibernation in the first place.
In the process, Mars becomes something of an apocalyptic horizon, with Calvin standing in as a symbol of all the unknown and horrors that might follow in the wake of future terraforming. Yet Life doesn’t really draw on the large subgenre of science fiction films about Mars – Mission to Mars, Total Recall, Ghosts of Mars – so much as Ridley Scott’s Alien and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which it cites and reiterates so explicitly that it feels somewhat beside the point to describe it as derivative or unoriginal. Instead, this is a revisionist space horror film, as director Daniel Espinosa discovers a kind of originality in fusing two quite distinct brands of space horror. On the one hand, he draws upon the alien horror of Alien, and the fear of space as a repository of unthinkable predatory species, along with the concomitant fear of encountering a species that might outdo humans in technological and intellectual primacy. At the same time, however, he draws upon the horror inherent in the physical conditions of outer space itself, and especially the horror of zero gravity that drove Gravity, conjuring up a world that is utterly inimical to human habitation even before the prospect of aliens is brought into the picture.
For all that it traffics in pretty limp dialogue and a fairly familiar narrative trajectory, then, Life is the first science fiction film that I’ve seen in which alien horror is paired with a halfway realistic depiction of zero gravity conditions. From the opening scene, Espinosa foregrounds the spatial freefall of outer space, establishing the parameters of the action in a single sequence shot in which the horizon and centre of focus continually rotates, rearranges and disassembles itself. As the film proceeds, the camera continually twists and turns, reestablishing and destabilising our perspective until all space feels relative and no point of focus feels anchored or centred in any enduring way. Even Espinosa’s static shots tend to focus on symmetrical perspectives or rotating objects that look exactly the same upside down, emphasising everything about spaceship architecture that is designed to make sense in gravity-free conditions, and removing even the most residual or subliminal sensation of being tethered to the floor.
In that sense, part of what makes the alien so scary – and so alien – is that it is perfectly suited to gravity-free conditions. As a single, expanding piece of plasma, it registers all space as relative, not least because every single one of its cells is apparently capable of performing the functions of a muscle cell, a nerve cell and photoreceptor cell at the same time (something the crew discover in their earliest investigations, when it is still only expanding at a microscopic level). With each cell operating as a muscle, a nerve and an eye, it doesn’t require gravity in the same way as a more asymmetrically and unevenly designed organism, imbuing it with a liquid sensory apparatus in which perception and movement more or less amounts to the same thing. Some of the most spectacular moments in the film occur when Espinosa tries to evoke this liquid perception and envisage a genuinely gravity-free camera – a camera that is not merely untethered by gravity but is devoid of even the most residual awareness of gravity – which often feels like much the same thing as a radically digital camera. As a result, the alien’s perception often recalls the disembodied mobility of drone cinematography, while the film as a whole seems to be attempting to converge drone cinematography with the gravity-free cameras of an older, classical science fiction cinema.
As might be expected, this combination of alien phenomenology with gravity-free spatiality produces some extraordinarily horrific moments, not least because the alien itself has such an uncanny and unsettling presence. While it has no single discernible appearance, in its mature state it almost looks like a bone and cartilage free version of Ridley Scott’s Alien, momentarily outdoing the terrifying mobility of even H.R. Giger’s vision. At the same time, all the deaths are enhanced, in some way, by the zero gravity environment. The first victim, who is killed while handling the plasma in its immature state, is left, hand broken and arm contorted in an awful posture, to float in uncanny stillness across the quarantine zone. Another victim is left to cough up larger and larger free-floating droplets of viscera and blood after the alien scurries down his throat and into his digestive system. And the most horrific death occurs when the alien wraps itself around one of the astronauts while she is wearing her space suit, breaking the coolant nozzle and forcing her to drown as she gazes upon the free-floating droplets of liquid forming, coalescing and coagulating within her helmet visor.
Yet for all the horror of these individual deaths, the eerie atmosphere as a whole doesn’t stem directly from the alien so much as the inherent disability of humans in gravity-free environments. When it first emerges that one of the crew members is paraplegic he seems like a curious outlier within the International Space Station, but the creature’s supremacy in zero gravity quickly forces the rest of the crew into the same position. If anything, the differently abled astronaut is at an advantage, since he’s used to dealing with and navigating different ability, although that doesn’t present the alien wrapping itself around his legs and feeding off him as well, until he realises too late to save himself or the astronauts around him. Similarly, some of the eeriest scenes don’t involve the creature at all but instead focus on the spectacle of how traumatic bodily processes – drowning, coughing up blood, being defibrillated – play out in zero gravity conditions. The result is a profound sense of the body’s inherent limits and debilitating potential, which is perhaps why the film moves towards such a sombre and unremitting conclusion, as well as its brutality in disposing of sympathetic characters and top-billed actors. And that intensity gives it a really compelling atmosphere and originality, as Espinosa crafts a combination of two major science fiction tropes that ends up being much more than the sum of its parts.