Calvin had been doing just fine before the astronauts showed up.
Granted, he wasn’t exactly lively. The single-celled, Mars-based organism had been fairly catatonic for a good 100 million years or so. But who among us couldn’t use a little more shut-eye? Given that his cellular structure is all eye—and all muscle, and all brain—one could argue that Calvin needs more rest than most.
But while Calvin was sleeping, a rover collected him (or her, or it) from the Martian soil and blasted him into space, to be examined by the six-person crew of the burgeoning International Space Station. They start pumping oxygen into his little box. They heat him up, nice and comfy. Once the conditions in the box reach a warm, primordial Earth-like state, Calvin perks right up and starts growing. Why, how nice of these strange bipeds to revive me like that, he might’ve thought to himself in inaudible Martian. They certainly seem frien—OW!
Now, it’s entirely possible that Calvin wasn’t thinking such kindhearted thoughts when the electrical shocks started. Given that Calvin doesn’t seem to possess a heart exactly, it’s possible that he woke up cackling silently, like an alien Snidely Whiplash. Cattle! It might’ve said in inaudible Martian. Bend to the power of the Old Ones! One can never be too sure about extraterrestrial beings.
But whatever Calvin’s initial motivation might’ve been, the events that follow are indisputable: Once the astronauts start a-shocking, Calvin starts a-killing.
Alas for Calvin, there are only so many humans to feed on in space. But the planet below has eight billion of ’em. Now, if only he could find a way down …
We don’t get to know our astronaut cast that well in Life, what with all the screaming and dying and whatnot. But these scientists definitely feel super, super bad when one of their own is threatened. And I think every single one of them risks and sometimes sacrifices his or her life to protect their fellow space-walkers to ensure that Calvin doesn’t get to earth.
Scientists believe that Calvin has been around for at least 100 million years. “We’re going to learn so much about life,” says researcher Hugh Derry. “Its origin, its nature, maybe even its meaning.”
One astronaut, Sho Murakami, whispers to a picture of his wife and newborn daughter, “I’m coming home.” It’s not completely clear whether he means he’s literally planning on getting home somehow (despite the creature that’s determined to kill him) or means it in a more figurative, spiritual sense—that he’ll see them both in the afterlife.
After the wife of an astronaut gives birth back on Earth, one of the man’s fellow crew members ribs him, “Do they have any idea who the father is?”
Calvin is not a gentle soul. When he’s still pretty small, he grabs hold of biologist Hugh Derry’s hand (protected by a thick rubber glove) and crushes, it would seem, every bone in it. (When Hugh manages to pull free, the hand is completely mangled, looking more like a contorted octopus than a recognizable human appendage.)
And that’s just the beginning. Calvin’s first fatality is a literal lab rat, kept (for some reason) shackled inside the space station’s lab. He wraps the poor, squeaking little critter in his grip and seems to absorb the thing alive, the rat clearly conscious until almost the end.
Calvin then moves on to people: He pries open someone’s mouth and kills him from the inside, blood floating from various orifices—both natural and made by Calvin—in weightless space. He kills another by crushing a coolant container in someone’s spacesuit: The victim eventually drowns in liquid coolant. He latches on someone’s leg, feeding on blood until that person, too, dies. He wrestles with someone in the vacuum of space, leading to another fatality. A mishap with another spaceship causes passengers on the visiting vehicle to lose their lives. Calvin fights with another astronaut in what would ordinarily be a space-bound “lifeboat,” and the results, while uncertain, are not good. Corpses float about weightlessly throughout the film.
The astronauts try to inflict their share of pain on Calvin, too. They attempt to barbecue him with an incinerator and, when the creature escapes outside the ship (he’s an extremely durable chap), blast him with the station’s maneuvering jets (which he’s trying to sneak back into the ship through). They shock the creature when it’s a more manageable size.
Explosions explode. Parts of the space station are shattered. Someone laments war and references a conflict in Syria.
Nearly 30 uses of the f-word and another 10 of the s-word. God’s name is misused once, and Jesus’ name is abused at least four times.
Hugh is initially enamored with the life-form he and the team have picked up. Rory warns him that his apparent affection for the creature is dangerous. “You’re drunk on this,” Rory says. “Wake up.”
Before Calvin becomes a deadly nuisance, the astronauts are interviewed by school children via satellite. One of those them asks how astronauts go to the bathroom, and Sho shows them the apparatus they use, explaining in clinical detail how it works.
In our individualistic society, to go “by the book” is often seen as a bad thing. We like to take chances, to color outside the lines, to get out of the box. As such, Life comes with a rather interesting countercultural message: There’s a reason we go by the book. There are occasions when we want what’s in the box to stay in the box.
About half the terrible things that happen in Life happen because someone literally opened doors that should’ve stayed tightly shut. Admittedly, keeping those doors shut often doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, particularly when an imperiled crewman is on the other side.
But ask folks who save lives for a living, and they’ll tell you some pretty sobering truths: You don’t dive in to save a wildly thrashing drowning person because they’ll likely take you with them. You don’t carry someone down from the top of Mount Everest, because if you do, neither of you will make it back. Life adds another example to the list: Best not to mess with super-strong, super-hostile Martian life-forms. We’re all about sacrificing ourselves to rescue others … but when we sacrifice ourselves and don’t save anyone, well, that’s another kettle of crawdads.
Life is a tense, often contrived story—Alien reheated, minus the acid blood. This sci-fi horror story could’ve easily been a PG-13 thriller without all the blood and harsh profanity, and frankly, it wouldn’t have lost a thing. But as it is, Life feels a lot like its Martian star, Calvin: a critter you might not want to let out of the box.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.