“Calvin” is an awful cute name for a tiny alien blob that comes alive and embarks on a murderous rampage; I would have preferred “Norman” or “Hagetha.” In space nobody can hear you scream, so the saying goes, though initially Swedish director Daniel Espinosa’s containment thriller Life – with the aforementioned Calvin as a terrifying extraterrestrial predator, somewhat removed from the little green man chestnut – tantalisingly suggests otherwise.
Early in the piece six astronauts aboard the International Space Station field questions from children back home, beamed in during a live telecast. If the screenwriters (Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, who wrote Deadpool) maintained that live feed when the pandemonium began, kicking off with the eye-bleeding death of a crew member played by Ryan Reynolds, the film could have paired its zero-gravity schlock with commentary around ratings obsession and the 24 hour news cycle: a kind of Network set in space.
But soon, like obnoxious youth arriving in the woods in a horror movie, reception conks out and connection to ground control is lost. The plan is for what happens in space camp to stay in space camp, given there are occupational health and safety issues with Calvin: a ravenous squid/snake-type thing that charges up and down corridors like a bat out of hell, putting victims in cobra squeezes and sliding into their mouths to mulch their innards.
There are obvious comparisons to Ridley Scott’s Alien, particularly in the look of the quickly-evolving beast and the director’s lashings of gross-out body horror. Life’s B movie aspirations are more conspicuous, however, and certainly more unashamed – especially as it lurches and squelches forward. Throat-squeezing verisimilitude exhibited early on gives way to a rote genre exercise; nevertheless a tight, twitchy, muscular ride.
The absence of a protagonist means nobody is assured of survival; there’s no certain-to-make-the-sequel Ripley style hero cracking one liners and hogging the best weapons.
In the crew’s floating space lab, chief scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) observes the growth of a tiny monocellular organism sourced from Mars. Calvin might as well yell “feed me!,” given the strange glob-like thing morphs into a phallic shape resembling Audrey II. That human-devouring extraterrestrial plant suits a potted description of Life: it’s Little Shop of Horrors meets Alien meets Piranha in Space (is that a movie yet?) with splashes of visual chutzpah, c/o cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, presenting an at times classy veneer – like a Gravity-lite.
The sardined, soon-to-be-sliced-and-severed characters are an ethically diverse mob: American, British, Russian, Chinese. But they are all very much of the smart-people-making-dumb-decisions ilk. Personality and circumstance-wise there’s not much to tell them apart, although Hugh’s story hits some notes of interest – paralysed from the waist down, he doesn’t need his wheelchair in zero gravity.
There are others, including the aforementioned fluid-drained Reynolds as a wise ass nobody will mourn. Also the prudent Dr Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) and the more emotional, gut-reacting Dr David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal). Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada) has recently become a father, which of course makes him a prime candidate for Calvin’s wrath. The absence of a protagonist means nobody is assured of survival; there’s no certain-to-make-the-sequel Ripley style hero cracking one liners and hogging the best weapons.
Or perhaps that should read “absence of a human protagonist.” By most definitions a protagonist is the character who matters most to the story, which would indicate Calvin’s status as the slimy-faced, CGI-lathered principal lead. Before the shit hits the fan one of the astronauts cries out for the rest of the crew to stop referring to the damn thing by that name, but to no avail. There’ll be a lot more Calvin-calling where that came from, in increasingly panicked breaths as action intensifies.
Human beings assign things names in order to rationalise them, the message appears to be. Perhaps in visual storytelling terms the same can be said of form and bodies: that we need to be presented with things we feel we can reach out and touch (the absence of which made the Final Destination movies and their imperceptible villain so memorable).
This is a point Life goes on to demonstrate, transforming Calvin from something near intangible (a luminous blob under a microscope) to a varmint airlifted in from any number of midnight movies and creature features. When Espinosa introduces ‘Calvin cam’ out of nowhere, apparently under the assumption the audience are hankering for a first-person squiz through the monster’s eyes, it’s clear the film has jumped the shark.
At one point a character on their deathbed expresses some sympathy for Calvin: it doesn’t hate us, he says, but it does need to kill us. Maybe it’s just pissed off they keep calling it that. “Calvin is a totally bad arse name,” said nobody, ever, on earth or in space.
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