Outer space is humankind’s most tantalizing unknown, too vast to comprehend, but just beyond our reach. Since Georges Méliès took A Trip to the Moon in 1902, the void of space has called to filmmakers, but where some look up at the stars and wonder, others shudder in fear.
Life does the latter. With its vaguely solemn title and a cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Life aims for some type of grand, profound statement about humanity’s adventurous spirit. Credit goes to the marketing team for a clever bait-and-switch. Life is a B movie with A-list stars, following more closely in the footsteps of Val Kilmer’s hokey 2000 Red Planet—or, if we’re being generous, Alien—than the sunnier space movies of recent years. Life has virtually no plot or characterization, and it’s short on scientific rigor. What it does have is a badass monster who keeps its characters and its audience terrified for 90 minutes straight.
The alien life form they capture is a single-celled organism, but in the ship’s oxygen-rich environment, it grows rapidly, evolving from a cute little blob to a stingray with the world’s ugliest face in a matter of minutes. Once it escapes the lab, it easily navigates the ship’s nooks and crannies, always staying one step ahead of the poor humans destined to become its food. As in the monster movies before it, the humans get picked off one by one in increasingly gruesome ways—the alien crawls inside one character’s mouth and destroys him from the inside—ultimately leaving a pair of them to make a difficult but predictable choice between self-sacrifice and self-preservation.
Although Life was, like most movies, conceived and made over a period of years, it has arrived right on time, reflecting the country’s rising anxieties and the panic over the state of our world. The unending, nightmarish terror, in which one disaster is averted only to find the alien creating another one down the hall, feels like the perfect representation of the U.S.’ current political predicament. Is the alien cleverly distracting our endangered heroes, or is it simply acting on instinct? Is it playing chess or checkers? Those of us frantically following the high-stakes battles in Washington may have found a film that mirrors our panicked sensibility. It’s not an adventure; it’s a horror show.
On film, science is often portrayed as human civilization’s greatest achievement, but in Life it amounts to hubristic overreach. The astronauts’ mission is to experiment on this new life form and learn from it, working in low Earth orbit so as not to risk bringing such an unknown entity back with them. “Its curiosity outweighs its fear,” says one scientist, misreading the then-tiny organism’s outstretched arm, but the same could be said of the humans. They’re so eager to learn about the universe that they ultimately risk bringing about their own obsolescence.
Science fiction has been on a roll in recent years, with The Martian and Arrival earning multiple Oscar nominations and Interstellar tipped for one before audiences became bitterly divided over its bold but often frustrating vision. Although these films deserve credit for their artistry, they also came burdened with self-importance. Isn’t science fiction supposed to be fun? They revel in the practicalities of space travel, pleasing science geeks all over the world and impressing the value of science education onto a rapt audience, but as the genre leans into its respectability, it risks losing the playful, subversive edge that defined it for decades.
This self-serious sci-fi almost felt like it was doing the work of the previous presidential administration. Obama was a science booster, even appearing on the cover of Popular Science in his last month in office. While he made only perfunctory overtures toward expanding space exploration, his entire candidacy, and at least the first couple years of his actual presidency, were centered on instilling faith in our ability to solve our biggest global problems through science. Wall-E in 2008 may have started this recent trend, but films from Gravity to the new Star Trek movies trade on ultimately optimistic visions of the future.
In film at least, this idealism has started to feel perfunctory. Every fall, a sci-fi film comes out with an Oscar pedigree and a pro-science message. That makes Life a refreshing change. Here is a sci-fi movie more interested in fiction than science, one that revels in the cinematic possibilities of space exploration rather than its serious, real-world implications, one that doesn’t comfort its audience with wish-fulfilling tales of human ingenuity. Movies like The Martian, Interstellar, and Arrival argue that the sciences can save the world. Forgive my pessimism, but right now, that particular notion doesn’t ring true. Life, with its sheer terror and its critical view of human naiveté, is the movie of our moment.