The xeno-organism at the centre of the new space thriller Life starts off microscopically small. By the time the movie's over, it will probably generate some giant-sized nightmares.
In the just-released movie directed by Daniel Espinosa, a crew of scientists working on the International Space Station recovers a sample of a microbe from Mars. Nicknamed Calvin, the life form grows throughout the course of the movie and seems innocuous, playful and maybe even curious. But then it starts killing humans.
One reason Calvin has all the makings of a great science-fiction monster is because of how it calls back thematically to other creatures that preceded it. Like the xenomorphs in the Alien franchise it pays homage to, we see the different forms Calvin takes during its life cycle. After growing into a wad of stretchy goo, Calvin looks a lot like a starfish by the end of the movie's first third. I watched it wreak havoc in that shape and thought to myself, "I will never laugh about Starro the Conqueror again." The goofy Silver Age DC Comics villain always had a disturbing undercurrent to its appearance, what with the way it attaches itself to your face. But Life had me thinking how terrifying it would actually be if a starfish-shaped alien with super-strength started to crawl up my body.
Calvin grows in size after it feeds, so every death makes it feel more implacable. Later on, Calvin sprouts tentacles, making the creature feel like something out of the H.P. Lovecraft oeuvre. Like Cthulhu, Calvin is a dread entity from beyond the veil, something that should have been forgotten but that found its way to the outer borders of mankind's existence.
Another disquieting fact about Calvin is that it doesn't make any noise. There's no signature hiss or ticking sounds as with the hunters or xenomorphs from the Predator or Alien franchises. You won't hear it coming; it will just appear, ready to crawl into your mouth and destroy you from the inside. This silence feeds into the mystery that makes us scared of it. Calvin also differs from those creatures in that we have no insight as to how it processes information about other life forms or its environment. We know that Calvin harbours some sort of predatory intelligence but there's no way of knowing just how smart it is.
Midway through Life, one of the characters remarks that, while understanding Calvin is only trying to survive like other living creatures, "I feel pure fucking hate for that thing." That emotion is understandable because, in large part, this terror is one that the crew — and mankind — brings upon itself. The ISS crew revives a long-dead life form because it's their job, but they never really understand what they're dealing with until it's too late. Calvin is nimble, invasive and fiendishly hardy, with only one real reliable weakness. It doesn't make noise and may be smarter than humanity can readily quantify. Hate is a believable response to Calvin but, like the best movie monsters, we can't help but also be morbidly fascinated by it too.