Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Meaning of "Life"


Taking advantage of the fact that movie tickets in Mexico (where I currently live) are about a third the cost of those in the USA, last night I saw the science fiction-horror film, "Life."

Note the title of the movie in Spanish is actually "Intelligent Life" (Vida Intelegente), which is actually somewhat more appropriate.

I'm going to discuss some problems I saw with this film, leading up to a general criticism that applies to many recent movies. A few spoilers follow, though most of what I will mention you can deduce pretty easily from the movie trailer and the poster I shared. I will deliberately avoid telling exactly how the movie ends and will be rather general about the information I share.

Yes, as per the trailer, life is found in a sample of soil brought from Mars to the International Space Station (ISS). The scientists on board, a special crew largely dedicated to studying the Martian samples, nurture this life into a multi-cellular organism, which over a process of time turns out to be malevolent. And intelligent, as per the movie title in Spanish. Most of the crew is dead by the end of the film.

This is sort of what we expect from a thriller set in space, what is essentially the retelling of 1979's Alien film, except in near-Earth orbit. Except...Alien was both thought-provoking science fiction for those interested in that, with an internally-consistent world view, AND a really scary film. Whereas Life managed to be mostly not that scary with the exception of a few notable scenes while not being very thoughtful at all--plus the story world it builds off is a jumbled mess.

The scariest scene in the movie is mostly given away by the trailer. There is something quite terrifying about the idea of having your hands in those gloves in a biological sample container--and then the SAMPLE grabs you and won't let you go. Only one other scene I found as uncomfortable as that, but if you've seen Alien, the second scene, which featured the alien entering a human body, comes off as a gruesome echo of what was a much more surprising scene in the 1979 film.

One of the things I really liked about the movie Life is how convincing the visual scenery was. It looked like the setting really was on the ISS and at times the view was stunning.

However...that leads to the film's greatest downfall. When telling a story, even in science fiction, you create certain story rules that a good story sticks to throughout the tale. Given an interstellar freighter on a deep space mission backed by a greedy corporation who is willing to risk the lives of the crew to bring back a potentially profitable life form--and you have the story world for Alien. Life's story world setting is as part of most highly publicized mission on Planet Earth (intended to bring back life from Mars), with an internationally well-known crew, on a orbital platform with numerous safety back-ups of many types and which is in constant communication with Earth via various means.


In spite of what you'd expect from the setting, Mission Control is virtually non-existent in this movie. As you might expect (in imitation of Alien), the crew does get completely isolated from Earth...which I don't have a problem with as the direction the plot needs to go. But hey, this is the ISS. That isolation should not come so soon. There are multiple communications systems and they don't just switch off from a single quick cause. Why not have the alien take them out systematically? Nope, that's not what happens.

In general the movie makes the ISS take on a lot of features the International Space Station does not actually have, like single-person escape pods and quite a lot more. The plot at one point envisions pushing the ISS into deep space but you can't actually do that with any kind of normal system. The ISS is too big and too low in Earth orbit. There's more, quite a lot more technological problems, which made the stated setting into something that's really quite different from a real place that actually really IS orbiting Planet Earth. I don't want to give all of these errors away, but they are numerous.

I want to be clear that I don't have a problem with changing the features of a real place for a story. Let's say the Empire State Building in New York City has a secret floor for government experiments. OK, no problem. Or a secret elevator. OK, cool. But as my imaginary example goes on, let's say we find out halfway through a movie that the secret elevator actually goes to hell...what, that's weird...oh and also, the Empire State Building can fly. I'd think: Really unlikely, but maybe with giant jets or something--but no, it can fly because somebody fitted it with a balloon the size of a baseball filled with a really special lifting gas...eventually I  find myself saying, ER, NO, THIS IS DUMB.

A story world needs internal consistency. A story cannot just go on magically changing aspects of real things because it helps move the plot along. That's sloppy script writing.

So there's that, the false story world. There's also the fact that the life in "Life" is seriously overpowered. It is not shown to be able to do anything it wants, but it gets quite close to that. Ordinary things that kill all known life don't work on it. And unlike in Alien where the features of the monster are revealed step by horrifying step, the beast in this film goes from innocuous to murderous to practically invulnerable at a very steep curve.


There's also the crew. For highly trained astronauts and scientists, they seemed a bit dim. There were multiple times while watching this movie I thought to myself, "OK, that's not going to work. Don't do that." Or, "Hey, that's clearly not working, do something else." But they kept on pursuing their bad ideas until they imploded.

By contrast, I felt the crew in Alien did things that made sense for the characters--even if at times their planning wasn't the best, it had internal logic. They, after all, were a space freighter crew, professionals but ordinary people at the same time. The crew of Life are supposed to be the brightest and best Earth has to offer...but they seemed, most of them, a bit ordinary in terms of how quickly they figured things out.

But even though they were ordinary in brain power, they were not as sympathetic or interesting as the characters in Alien. They seemed a bit like cardboard cutouts instead of fully-developed characters (to me at least), with one surprising exception to that--the Japanese astronaut, who wasn't even one of the headline actors in the film.

So how did this film get made with so many story problems? What inspires a studio to create an inconsistent story world, shallow characters, an over-powered baddie, and an unconvincing plot?

I find myself answering this by going back to what the film did best--it's visual effects. The film sure looked good. The actors were attractive, too. It seems that no expense was spared to provide visual images. The looks of the "life"form itself, which was a product of CGI, could perhaps be criticized somewhat. But I would say if the alien failed to be fully convincing it was because of how it moved and how it acted, not because of what it looked like.

It seems that recently when studios think "science fiction" they spare no expense to pour money into visual effects. Stunning visuals are more and more common in movies. But at the same time, the stories as in plot, character, and consistent story setting seem to be getting put on the back burner.


So what is the meaning of "Life"? It means that movie studios think science fiction fans care most about special effects and that stories, especially those with internally consistent story worlds, don't matter much.

Are they right about that?

I surely hope not.




ttp