Life, Dead on Arrival

In a year of really great hard science fiction, Life fails spectacularly. The trapped-in-space scenario is familiar ground, with the original Alien movie being the most successful. Whereas audiences cheered on Sigourney Weaver and the cat, the audience never felt empathy about the ISIS crew in this glossy looking horror movie. The fault did not lay with its stars since the cast, including Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, and Jake Gyllenhaal, was stellar. No, the fault lay in two factors: bad science and shuttle-sized plot holes.

Life posterThe beginning of the movie shows astronauts on the International Space Station capturing an out of control probe and removing Mars samples. Inside a lab apparently built for this purpose, the exobiologist finds a one-celled, protozoan-looking creature and is able to reanimate it. To do so, he must flood it with a different-than-modern-Earth atmosphere and a sugar medium. This miraculously brings the creature to life. Over the next twenty-five days, it grows into large colony of independent cells that ultimately becomes a powerful squid-like creature. The exobiologist describes it as “every cell is a muscle, a brain, and a sense organ,” but it is a collection of individual cells, not a creature made up of differentiated cells. This is an important distinction that the movie then forgets about. The mature alien looks beautifully different than other cinema monsters and moves through zero gravity easily in a swimming motion. It is also unkillable, which is a stupid idea in any film.

After growing into a small critter and interacting in a fun way with the scientist, a leak in the gas feed disrupts the atmospheric balance within the glove box, causing the delicate, undeveloped life form to go dormant. The scientist decides to wake it up with a little electricity. So in this classic scene of man meets alien, humanity throws the first punch by repeatedly zapping baby squiddy’s ass without any further scientific examination. The Martian, now named Calvin, doesn’t like that and breaks the scientist’s hand. Who could blame the squiddy at that point? Showing early intelligence, Calvin then uses the broken electric probe to rip a hole in the mylar glove and escape into the laboratory module. How it is able to survive in our atmosphere is a mystery unanswered by the film. In response, the crew, who should know better, open the sealed lab to get the scientist out, breaking any ability to keep the organism isolated. Calvin kills another person and escapes. The rest of the movie then evolves into a race of who lives and who dies.

The molecular and cellular biologist in me is close to screaming at the screen by this point. Only my deep respect for other theater patrons stops me. Here are just a few of the bad science ideas presented in the horror flick.

If the crew’s mission really was to explore alien life as they stated, then the lab capsule section should have safety features as a precaution to blow it off of the rest of the ISIS station. The leader of the group repeatedly stresses the importance of fire walls to keep the organism from spreading. The lab itself should have been rigged with explosives. As Ripley says in Aliens, “Nuke it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

If it really was a colony of one-celled organisms and not one animal made up of cells, then everything it touched and every body it inhabited was now contaminated. ANY scientist would have known that and not pulled the injured man out of the lab room. When working with highly dangerous one-celled organisms, real biologists make sure it can’t spread to the rest of the world, even if that means leaving the “oops” guy in there to die or at least go through a thorough decontamination. Real scientists in all fields understand this would never argue about it.

This idea is further screwed up when they bring out the dead body and wrap it for burial. Squiddy went inside the guy’s mouth to kill him. Do they not remember that Calvin is a mass of single-celled organisms? How do we know the alien didn’t leave cells behind for more squiddies? Hasn’t this crew seen Alien where the baby erupts from the guy’s stomach?

All living things breathe, metabolize food, and have temperature intolerances. The one-celled sample was dormant because it needed a “special atmosphere.” Thus, it should have struggled in the human-oriented air of the station. It also should have burned in the flames and/or frozen in space. Immunity to one is possible but not both. It should have died from lack of respiration for the long time (at least 30 minutes of story time) it swam around outside of ISS.

Finally, as Calvin grew, it apparently understands Earth technology, because the first thing it destroys is the crew’s ability to reach Earth. How convenient. I can appreciate that the creature was super smart but how could it possibly know what relays to kill? It also supposedly sneaks back in through the thruster tubes. If the thruster tubes are connected to the main cabin, then that station is leaking oxygen like crazy. Another science screw-up.

Okay enough ranting about the science. You get the idea.

The second factor that made this creature feature a disappointment was that it was predictable and had filming issues. Past space films were big on the panoramic beauty of space and gloriousness of the planet from orbit. This film glossed over or ignored that background.

In addition, Daniel Espinosa, the director, gave the audience squiddy-vision scenes at least twice where the view appeared watery as the critter swam toward one of its victims. This should have been a cool effect but it actually proved disorienting and broke the audience’s focus off of caring about the remaining victims. We don’t want to sympathize with Calvin so his point of view was simply annoying. Even the ending, which should have been a surprise, was predictable because the director tried to hammer out the tension but instead hinted too much at the eventual resolution.

In short, save your money for better films in the future, because this horror flick truly disappoints. Rather than seeing it in the theater, rent it for a bad-movie night experience and bring lots of popcorn for throwing at the screen.

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