My roommate and I watched Life last night. We’re geeks and sci-fi fans and like to watch bad movies with a few drinks. It’s fun to make up your own plots. Our version of Life involved shoving in as many Alien references as possible. Jake Gyllenhaal was definitely an android the real question was whether he was a kindly Bishop or murderous Ash? We also naturally assumed that Calvin was the Jason Voorhees of his species. It was fun, but after the movie ended we kept on talking about it and I noticed that we got increasingly frustrated and wondered why?
After doing our own version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a couple of years, we discovered that bad movies can broken down into three categories: boring, dumb or frustrating. Some can even be all three, (looking at you Suicide Squad). Dumb movies tend to be the most enjoyable, you understand what you’re getting into and you can just sit back and laugh. Boring are the worst, because boring. And frustrating are the most interesting, because they suggest maybe a good or at least decent movie was lurking just below the surface.
Life was probably never going to be a good movie, but it could have easily been a decent one. Life is a film you’ve seen before, part Gravity, but mostly parts Alien. The film is about a research team on the International Space Station that collect a satellite with Martian samples on it. One of those samples contains microscope life, which they name Calvin. Eventually Calvin grows big and starts murdering everyone and it’s a race to keep him from getting to earth, where one assumes he will slowly, but inevitably, murder every individual on the planet.
Life’s not boring, it’s well made, everyone puts in a solid performance. Like the best monster movies the humans are competent. The crew of the International space station feel like a bunch of smart engineers and scientists reacting as coolly as they can to everything going wrong. The premise of discovering alien life that is the best at killing us is so overplayed at this point that I doubt Life could have done anything interesting with it, but even cliched it could have been alright.
The problem with Life rests solely on the tentacles of it’s lead, Calvin. Calvin is a decently designed monster. He goes through some Alien style transformations and moves in appropriately creepy way. But he’s the Mary Sue of monsters. He’s the best at everything. He’s smarter, faster, stronger than the humans he’s attacking even when he’s just the size of a starfish. He’s nigh invincible, does just fine in the vacuum of space and immediately understands how to use tools and escape every trap the crew puts him in. And Calvin’s biggest flaw is that he breaks his own rules.
In his video take down of ‘The Death and Return of Superman’ Max Landis asks ‘how do you kill a vampire?’ The answer is whatever way the writer wants. You are the god of the fiction you create. If you decide vampires die from peanut allergies rather than stakes and garlic, you can do that. But if you then show one of your vampires enjoying a Payday without any problems, that can’t be a throw away scene. You need to explain the rule breaking, it needs to work with the rest of your world.
In Life rules for Calvin are stated just so that he can break them or ignore them entirely. The biologist who studied Calvin, before he went all Hannibal Lecter, is constantly saying things like ‘Calvin is carbon based so he burns’, and yet he’s immediately immune to fire. ‘Calvin can’t survive long in the vacuum of space’, he survives long enough to drown an astronaut and still scamper around the exterior of the ISS without any problem. ‘Calvin needs oxygen to breathe’, when they shut off the oxygen Calvin is never evidently hampered by this and goes about killing at least three people without missing a beat.
‘Calvin’ doesn’t hate people he needs kill us to survive’, maybe this one is true because he says ‘kill’ not ‘eat’. Early on we see Calvin consume a rat, like all of it, bones, organs, flesh. But when Calvin starts killing people he only east a little of their insides before running off to go kill someone else. Remember that astronaut that drowned? The biologist said Calvin knew what he was doing when he cracked the tubes in her suit. He doesn’t eat any of her.
Good monsters are powerful, but with rules and weakness that give their human victims a fighting chance. Vampires can fly, hypnotize people, are super fast and strong, but trap them in a peanut factory and their done for. The Xenomorphs from Aliens have acid blood, and razor sharp tails but go down with a plasma round to the face.
Rules are vitally important for monster stories, because these stories are like a game. The humans are on one team and the monster is on the other. The humans slowly discover the monster’s weakness and try to use that against it to either escape or trap the creature. While the monster is shown to be tough and clever by figuring out ways to escape the traps and hunt down the humans. It’s about an ebb and flow, slow escalation, the humans discover the rules and use them to their advantage thinking they’re safe, the monster then outsmarts the rules.
As the writer you can break your own rules, but that will make the audience feel like your cheating. The game is over, the humans aren’t playing against a monster they’re stuck at that stage in a video game where you’re supposed to lose the boss battle. You need to play your own game, think within in your own rules. You can introduce new rules and changes, but keep a consistency. A monster that overcomes every barrier isn’t scary, it’s boring and frustrating.
In Aliens there’s a scene were a set of auto turrets take out scores of the alien xenomporhs. The humans think they’re safe because they know the Xenomorph’s weakness to plasma rounds to the face. The Xenomorphs prove how clever they are, by crawling along the ceiling and under the floorboards to get at the humans. They followed the rules established for them and thought around them, making them all the more dangerous and keeping the tension going.
If the same scene happened in Life Calvin would have just discovered a sudden immunity to bullets. Sometimes to make a monster truly frightening you need to show it losing.