Life

When the credits began to roll on Life, the group to my left groaned, audibly annoyed by what transpired. The group in front of me immediately began complaining: “That’s it?” Meanwhile, you couldn’t strip the big, goofy grin off my face if you tried. This (admittedly anecdotal) experience revealed that the ending of Daniel Espinosa‘s new science fiction horror movie is going to divide some people. For some, it’s an abrupt sucker punch to the stomach. For others, it’s the nerviest, wildest part of a pretty good movie that needed more of that wicked energy before the final 15 minutes.

Those final scenes aren’t just the best part of the movie – they transform the film into a modern companion piece for a very specific kind of movie. So let’s talk about the Life ending. Spoilers ahead, of course.

The Sucker Punch

Fairly late in the game, it becomes clear that every person on board the International Space Station is doomed. The alien creature known as “Calvin” won’t die easily, the bulk of the crew has met their ends, and the “rescue mission” turned out to be an attempt to push the ISS into deep space to prevent hostile alien life from reaching Earth. And because the plot of Life is structured like an unstoppable spiral into inevitable defeat, this mission also fails, with the ISS plummeting toward the planet instead of further into the cosmos. So, what are the two surviving characters, David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) to do?

It’s simple enough. She’ll take one of the station’s lifeboats back to Earth. He’ll trap Calvin in the other one, override the autopilot, and take their deadly friend in the opposite direction, sacrificing himself to save mankind.

And thus, the final act begins, with the action cutting between North’s attempt to escape with her life and Jordan’s attempt to lure the ever-growing beastie into the escape pod and seal it in. Things get off to a smooth start – they reach the lifeboats, he manages to seal Calvin inside, and both launch. We are treated to a dramatic series of quickly cut images, taking us rapidly between the two lifeboats – he attempts to undo the autopilot to turn his pod away from the atmosphere while she holds on for dear life, leaving a recording to inform everyone of the dangers of Calvin and Martian life, should she not survive the plummet back to human soil.

Then, a lifeboat lands in an unspecified ocean. A fisherman approaches and peers through the window. And it’s Jordan, completely enveloped in Calvin. We cut to space, where North screams in terror as her lifeboat careens off course, sending her deep into space thanks to a mechanical malfunction. On Earth, Jordan yells as the fisherman pries open the lifeboat door…

And then…credits. Cue the cackling from some and the grumbling from others. For my money, it’s a fantastic ending for an otherwise totally decent movie, a middle finger to the audience delivered with a big grin. “You wanted a happy ending?” the movie asks. “Here you go!” it says, before raising its other hand and offering you another middle finger. It’s all doom and gloom, but it’s not without a sense of humor – by using North’s final message to the human race to distract us, Espinosa and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick feed us the Hollywood ending before revealing there was rat poison in the meal. It’s mean. It’s delightful.

The Thing

The Lineage

In its set-up, Life is purely a ’50s B-movie. There’s a spaceship (or rather, a space station) and a flesh-eating alien gets on board and starts to kill everyone. We’ve seen that a hundred times before and Life operates on some pretty familiar beats. In fact, the film owes a debt to Ridley Scott’s Alien, which took this same template and added a thick layer of gloss and class back in 1979. This film belongs that lineage of Hollywood movies that “upscale” the “monster on a spaceship” template. That much is obvious from the beginning.

However, the ending of Life showcases a debt to another family of science fiction horror movies. After all, the ’50s template usually features survivors, allowing the humans a final victory. Even Ellen Ripley and Jones the cat escape with their lives in Alien. The nihilistic, “Fuck you” finale of Life allows the film to have another foot firmly in the camp of ’80s science fiction horror, where happy endings were more rare and doom was the name of the game. If ’50s science fiction was a reflection of the early days of the space race, with mankind conquering the unknown, ’80s science fiction as all about acknowledging several decades of the Cold War: we are all going to die.

The final stretch of Life owes more to John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly than it does to Alien and its brethren. Those movies end on down notes – in the former, the survivors of the alien threat sit down to freeze to death, each of them wondering if the other is a monster in disguise; in the latter, the creature/protagonist is put out of its misery by his lover, who sees her final actions as an act of mercy. All of these movies, including Life, end abruptly and on a downbeat note. All of them refuse to address what may happen next, leaving all of it to the imagination. They roll the credits with a mess in progress. Everything is on fire and there’s nothing we can do.

Life isn’t as good as Alien, The Thing, and The Fly (and to compare it to those films is just plain unfair), but it is their cousin, related to both by a weird marriage at some point in their interconnected family tree. There’s even a little bit of Gravity and Apollo 13 in there, which makes you wonder who was sleeping with whom at some point. In any case, the ending of Life, a brash, darkly hilarious inversion of expectations, has its roots in the cynical, apocalyptic genre fare of the ’80s.

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate year than 2017 to kickstart this trend once again (just pick a random newspaper headline at random). When everything is on fire, the movies let us laugh along as it all burns down.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: