By Sarah Montgomery
An effective strategy to bring attention to topics that have little support is to use celebrities, Hollywood, and advertising industries to promote them. The recent, 2017 release Life brings attention to the work done by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the potential that their scientific research has. Many may wonder, though, why is this important? During his campaign, presidential candidate Donald Trump made threats to defund parts of NASA’s budget for climate research, and also to keep them on Earth. Even though Trump has not made any definite plans for NASA, many scientists are concerned about its fate. Life brings attention to the public about such topics and is one of the newest releases to address political issues.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa, but written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, Life is a science-fiction horror movie that aims to shock its audience. Similar to the classic alien horror movie Alien, Life focuses on themes of humanity and teamwork in effort to defeat the form of life that is foreign to Earth. Life’s realistic discoveries and dreaded consequences are a possibility that viewers may have never considered before and make for an hour and a half of suspense and toe-curling.
Set on the International Space Station (ISS), Life begins with a team of six members, each of whom brings a specialty to the table. For the most part, they all exhibit a professional, serious manner; however, moments of excitement show that they are still people with senses of humor, even if they have been in space and away from civilization, some for over a year. Attempting to obtain a soil sample from Mars, the team works harmoniously to get the job done. The pilot, David (Jake Gyllenhaal), works with Rory (Ryan Reynolds), who is the most qualified to exit the ISS into space, in order to safely obtain the sample.
Once the sample enters the ISS, it is placed behind three firewalls: a protective box in the lab, the lab, and the ISS itself. Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) is a paraplegic xenobiologist who begins studying the sample. Through careful observation, he notices that there is a single-celled organism in the sample. He speaks to Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), the doctor on board, about the next step in regards to the organism. After adjusting the atmosphere and adding a growth medium, Hugh essentially brings the organism to life, thus identifying the first form of life from outside of Earth. When the organism named “Calvin” begins to grow, the team, including Kat (Olga Dykhovichnaya) and Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada), realizes that it is more powerful than any life form they already know. They will go to great measures to make sure that it does not ever reach Earth.
The scientific knowledge behind “Calvin” may sound very complex for the average viewer. However, the information is biologically accurate, relevant, and fairly simple to understand for anyone who has taken a basic level biology course—even those who are not scientifically inclined. When observing Calvin for the first time, Hugh says, “We’re looking at a large, single cell; inert. Unmistakably biological. And like organisms on Earth, here’s what appears to be a nucleus, cytoplasm. The cell wall is thick. Those hairs look like cilia. Longer than we’re used to seeing on Earth. More like flagella.” These organelles are the most basic structures of a cell, and the majority of viewers will understand what Calvin is made of: our own biological material.
The time invested in explaining the scientific makeup of Calvin shows that the writers were extremely interested in making the audience understand why such information is relevant. This is effective in exhibiting the relevance of NASA’s extraterrestrial studies to biological studies on Earth because if NASA were to discover such an organism, there would be much potential to find out more about ourselves.
With such realistic themes and intense scenes, Life guides the audience towards a particular feeling: the fear of the unknown. The score and soundtrack assists with this tremendously. All music was done by Jon Ekstrand, who did a phenomenal job of incorporating music at the exact moments, as well as leaving silence when needed. The film begins with a shot from outer space, followed by mysterious, fluctuating instrumental music that lets the audience wonder what is going on. One of the first suspenseful scenes in the film shows Calvin getting a grip on Hugh. This scene perfectly portrays the fear of the unknown and the potential power of Calvin. In order to do this, Ekstrand incorporates deep, but steadily increasing instrumental music that could change at any moment. This score keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. When the music stops, the audience may realize that they have been holding their breath.
Another element of Life that makes the movie stand out is the special effects. Because the characters are in a zero-gravity environment, they cannot walk normally as they would on Earth. The actors, instead, glide around the ISS flawlessly. Clearly, this is behind-the-scenes movie-magic, but the result is impeccable, and it truly appears as if the actors are not able to stand on the ground. This effect is consistent throughout the duration of the film, and the patience exhibited by the actors during this touches on their skill. In addition to the special effects related to gravity, the computer generated imagery (CGI) on Calvin is incredible. Calvin glided across the ISS effortlessly with movement resembling that of organisms found on Earth. This shows the audience that Calvin is much more similar to us than we may have realized before.
The acting in Life was superb due to the quality actors cast in every role. Each actor or actress in the film is established, skilled, and perfectly portrays the character they are playing as well as the underlying complexities. Ryan Reynolds, who plays Rory, brings a bit of light-heartedness to the film. He incorporates wit and humor where others do not. When live video chatting with the team on the ISS, elementary school children ask if there is an alien inside of them, and Rory responds by telling them that “their teacher may think so sometimes.” However, he is not simply all fun and games, for when he first comes in contact with Calvin, the tears in his eyes and the terror on his face as he looks at Miranda shows that there is much more inside. Ariyon Bakare may not be the xenobiologist, Hugh, in real life, but he delivers the information so well that one would never know the difference. Additionally, his discussion with Miranda about being in a wheelchair really brings his character to an emotional level and helps viewers to better understand why he feels that he was meant to be in space.
Jake Gyllenhaal does an excellent job of playing David’s character. The character is purposely closed up at first, making him a bit more difficult to read. However, we soon learn that he is not the simple man he seems to be; he enjoys being in space because of the empty hum and how he feels more at home in space than on Earth. Kat’s character is very intelligent, and it is clear off the bat that she gives her job, her all. Lastly, Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Miranda, brings together the team. Her genuine performance including her love for Earth, humanity, and family keeps everyone grounded.
Life focuses on the scientists aboard the ISS who work together to defeat a martian named Calvin. To do this, they focus on themes of science, teamwork, and the fear of the unknown. The feeling of unity between the characters makes every viewer feel like they are a part of the team aboard the ISS. The use of biological accuracy, quality score and soundtrack, excellent special effects, and A-list actors cause the audience to be interested in the work that NASA is doing, and it compels the audience to question what may thwart their potential. The profound aspects of Life earn it a high grade and make it more than just a watch. These elements make it an entertaining and educating experience about the potential that our own species could uncover.
Final Score: A
Sarah Montgomery is a second-year Biology major with a proclivity for space and science-related films.