To live, a new sci-fi thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, doesn’t require a launch countdown. A crew of six from the International Space Station is retrieving a Martian soil sample as the centerpiece of an eight-month mission. And, of course, the camera starts rolling when the probe that’s supposed to bring that monster aboard takes some rock damage. The situation now requires a high-tension spacewalk to operate a mechanical arm and hook the capsule. But don’t worry, our heroes have a snoring American mission specialist Rory Adams (Reynolds) nearby.
“I used to play catch when I was in the tee ball,” he tells his colleagues as they all sweat out the do-or-die moment. The impact is severe, confusing our point of view for a second… but this crew has it under control. “Cue Instagram, aim and shoot mother*cker,” says Adams. (Did we mention that the Deadpool tandem of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick wrote this script?)
However, the crew has no time to celebrate as this monster must be thoroughly examined in the space lab led by British Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare). On day two of this initiative journal, Derry encounters what appears to be at least one viable cell of life – cell wall, a nucleus, some silica, etc. Derry soon fiddles with the atmospheric settings in the controlled space, mimicking something akin to the soil. Proterozoic era. And after the sample is stimulated with some glucose, it moves.
Derry calls it the first “irrefutable evidence of life beyond Earth” and is eager to continue testing the life form. Back on Earth, a triumphant press round follows, along with an elementary school contest in which this thing is called Calvin. But that soon isn’t the only identifying feature of the organism, as Derry discovers that it develops a growing neural network with trillions of cells that are able to work together or function individually – these are muscle, nerve and photoreceptive cells. in a. “So this thing is all brains, all muscles, and all eyes,” says Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), the CDC representative on board.
Things seem to be running smoothly until Day 25, when the ISS lab experiences an unexpected error that lowers the air pressure of Calvin’s confined space. The life form stops responding. Derry is dejected, fearing that a mistake of his could rob Earth of its greatest discovery. Others on staff assure him it’s okay to move on and avoiding possible contamination is more important, but Derry persists in the name of science. He wants to give Calvin a light electric shock in case he hibernates instead of dead. What’s the worst that could happen? The staff have joked about? Animator again at this point, and they certainly saw it too Alien…
Well made, well intentioned, but…
Set in the present, To live has a foundation in reality. The production involved former project managers from the European Space Agency and medical experts from the Johnson Space Center as consultants. The story takes place aboard a slightly embellished version of the ISS, and there are spacewalks and various technical challenges to work through. It all feels believable enough, though IANAL-EB (I’m not an Ars legend, Eric Berger).
Add to To live‘s attention to detail, the film is largely visually stunning. The shots of the outer space, combined with Jon Ekstrand’s score, give everything a memorable feel that seems appropriate for the first discovery of extraterrestrial life. And while the interior of the ISS takes some liberties – from Derry’s souped-up lab to the holographic interfaces scattered everywhere – it never looks fake. The VFX ensures that the setting always feels authentic, largely due to the wiring and motion installations that smoothly simulated zero-g throughout the film (these are worked out in post-production, of course). “It’s oddly challenging. Making the zero-g thing look believable takes a lot more high-tech stunt work than you think,” Reynolds told Ars about all the pulleys and rigs he’s been through. “Well, it’s hard for the stunt team. For us, it’s like doing a plank all day.”
The formula “human versus alien in a confined space” has been tried before, but To live contains very few moments of gore or jump scares like others in this niche. Instead, this film relies on its inherently claustrophobic setting and varying degrees of tension to instill terror. Beyond a first flub when responding to the first sign of danger, the people in To live don’t even make obviously stupid horror movie type decisions. Unfortunately for them, neither does this new life form. The two sides are essentially playing a high-stakes game of chess, countering each other’s actions until one faction is simply out of pieces. The best parts of To live come from the reaction moments in this cat and mouse, especially when the ISS crew somehow takes a moment to breathe and consider logical decisions in the face of an impending (and increasingly smarter) threat.
As for that threat, it seems to have a clear nature inspiration for its appearance and movement, combining octopus-like tentacles with a snake-like face and slippery habit. Although it starts out microscopic, this translucent creature grows as it gains its essence (Derry concludes that at one point it is a carbon-based life form, so it needs oxygen, food and water which is available in the ISS in various forms). Ferguson told Ars that the cast didn’t work with any kind of stand-in during filming, “we just have our imaginations and our fears may look different.” When one of the people is in close contact with Calvin, that uneasy uncertainty is palpable.
All this makes for a pretty strong skeleton – premise, production value, panic – but To live does not always deliver the meat. Take the characters. Whatever subplots supposedly inform us about these individuals, it feels like half measures; To live relies on our past relationship with the actors or on quick, half-baked moments of background. Adams from Reynolds is a fast-talking smart ass who is good with his hands and just gets things done. David Jordan van Gyllenhaal is an enigmatic doctor of few words capable of great intensity or action. But all we really know about Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada) is that he has a family to think about based on his observation of the delivery room via iPad. And the paralysis of the lower body of Dr. Derry only seems to play a part if he talks about it explicitly one night before bed. The overall focus of the story is so narrow – ISS crew encounter alien life and have to navigate it carefully – that perhaps it would have been better to omit special backstory moments altogether rather than leave them feeling underdeveloped.
After seeing the movie at South by Southwest, I tried to explain the plot to a friend later that day. The conversation included a lot of “wait, what?!” and “oh, come on!” reactions. Nothing came across as tense at the time (perhaps a testament to the achievements of the likes of Bakare, Ferguson, and Gyllenhaal in particular), but describing the back and forth between the people and Calvin one after another came as complicated after a while. about . (It’s a nearly two-hour movie, so there are a lot twists and turns to note.) The last act in particular doesn’t go as expected, and it’s something I’ll try to take a closer look at when this movie resurfaces on streaming or cable in a year or so. However you interpret the takeaway, it will certainly be discussion fodder for many a commentary or Reddit thread, though perhaps To live wears his intent on his sleeve. At some point halfway through the film, Derry explains that only survival, our very existence, requires destruction. In that sense Calvin is no different. “It doesn’t hate us,” he says. “It can kill us to survive.”
Space-based sci-fi releases have been going through a renaissance of sorts lately. It’s not just new Star Trek and star wars. Many unexpectedly took the best pictures –The Martian (2015), Arrival (2016), Gravity (2013) – and others have simply achieved the beloved status, even if they have obvious flaws (we are driving for 2014’s interstellar, for example). To live comes at a time when only the appetite for this stuff should guarantee any success, but this movie is definitely among those other modern classics. There are some pleasantly tense action sequences, beautiful visual sequences and likeable personalities, but there are no notable new additions to the genre.
After debuting at SXSW, To live is in cinemas this weekend.
Listing image by 2016 CTMG, Inc./SXSW