LIFE, Hopelessness, and Overpowered Villains

This is not gaming-related. Call it an experiment in other topics.

If you were REALLY looking forward to seeing the movie LIFE, or if you’re just particularly spoiler-wary, then I encourage you to do so before reading this. Because I am about to spoil the shit out of LIFE.

This feels kind of weird because, on paper, LIFE doesn’t have that many problems. It’s a pretty film, it’s well-acted, it’s got decent monster design (as far as gray tentacle blobs go), and it sufficiently raises stakes and builds tension. It’s even got a fun (if predictable) twist at the end.

So why was I so bored by it?

Well, if you break it down, LIFE is a movie about hopelessness. Each of our characters (except for Jake Gyllenhaal, but we’ll get to that) has some something to look forward to in their lives. Family back home, a future to look forward to, a dog, etc.

Then, along comes Calvin, our little alien blob from Mars that introduces another amazing hope into their minds. Calvin is incontrovertible proof beyond a shadow of a doubt that life exists beyond Earth. We are not alone in the universe, and our closest neighbors are but a hop, skip, and jump away from us, astronomically speaking.

I actually found myself enjoying the beginning of this film. Everyone’s so excited about Calvin, about what it represents for humanity going forward. The look of pure joy on Ariyon Bakare’s face as he plays with his little mushroom friend couldn’t help but melt my heart.

But I saw the trailers, so I knew what was going to happen next. Calvin has to go bad and start xenomorphing its way through the crew, right? So, I let my hopeful, futurist joy subside and settled in to watch a series of sadistic alien murders. Little did I know that Calvin would prove to be so damn…boring, as far as alien killers go.

They make a comment early on that all of its cells have multiple functions, meaning that it is entirely composed of muscle, brain, eyes, ears, etc. at the same time. This is then paid off when it escapes its confinement box as a tiny floppy starfish by re-fashioning an electric probe into a piercing tool. We’re led to believe that what makes Calvin scary is its high level of intelligence. And this persists throughout the movie. Characters are constantly saying that Calvin “knows what its doing” whenever something bad happens.

And that would be pretty scary on its own. An adaptive creature with a high level of intelligence bent on survival at all costs? That sounds like a cool movie monster!

Except that’s not all that Calvin is. Calvin is what we in the gaming biz call “Completely Overpowered.” Not only is it exceptionally versatile, intelligent, and voracious, but it also grows every time it consumes biomass. Oh, and it can consume biomass in seconds. And it can consume things that would kill a normal human. And even though it keeps growing, it can still slip through tiny cracks and seams without damage. And it’s impervious to both fire and electricity. And it can survive the vacuum of space. And it’s exceptionally strong, able to break bones before it even grows to the size of a human hand.

Can it breathe fire, too? Does it have acid spit? Mind control powers? Flight? Fucking laser eyes? I wouldn’t be surprised.

I said at the beginning that LIFE is about hopelessness, and that’s supposed to be reflected in the way that Calvin thwarts them every time they try to kill it, until they eventually give up and wait for death. This, I think, is an admirable subject to make a science fiction movie about. So many are about hope and perseverance and the human spirit; the idea of making an almost-lovecraftian story where the protagonists are but bystanders in the face of an unrelenting, impossible force is new and fresh. Except LIFE just can’t seem to hit the mark. It wants Calvin to be an intimidating, monstrous, incomprehensible being. The execution, however, feels more like a kid cheating at a game of pretend, claiming to have a _____ shield every time another kid tries something new. Rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of what they’d unearthed, the characters seemed to be plain exhausted by the end.

Which, of course, leads us to the final spark of hope, and a final showdown. If they can’t kill the damn thing, then maybe they can trap it in an escape pod and launch it into deep space. But one of them needs to pilot the pod, because it’ll otherwise head directly toward earth. Gyllenhaal says he’ll do it, because he’s got nothing to look forward to down on earth and, in his words, he belongs up there (told you his utter lack of character motivation would come back).

It seems to work, at first. Gyllenhaal traps the creature in with him and takes off, taking manual control of the pod while Rebecca Ferguson takes off toward Earth to warn them not to go back to Mars. Calvin pins down Gyllenhaal, but it seems like he did it. We watch as one pod spirals out into space while the other careens toward earth. It lands somewhere in the Pacific ocean and we watch some fishermen check to see if someone’s inside.

SURPRISE, MOTHERFUCKER! IT’S GYLLENHAAL AND CALVIN! Smash cut to Ferguson tumbling through space, screaming.

A cool twist, right? And it re-enforces the idea of hopelessness since…wait. If he engaged the manual controls, and Calvin had him pinned down, then that means that Calvin had to pilot the pod. Calvin, a space squid that, while intelligent, has had absolutely ZERO training for such an event, piloted a small escape pod through Earth’s atmosphere without burning it up on re-entry, and engaged both the parachutes and floatation devices with perfect timing.

Calvin—who was nothing more than a fucking space mushroom earlier that day—can pilot human space ships.

Fucking WHAT!?

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