(Warning: This post contains heavy spoilers for Life.)
Life is not a relaxing film. At best, it’s about a bunch of people floating in a tin can, far above the world, entranced with the possibility of having just discovered life on Mars. But even then, you can’t quite sit back and savor their enthusiasm, because this is a horror film, which means that that adorable little amoeba — which an adorable grade-schooler adorably names Calvin — is going to find a way to kill everyone, or nearly everyone, and in some pretty gruesome ways.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happens: Calvin grows bigger, stronger, and, it turns out, hungrier, seeking, like a surly teen, to satisfy its need for food by any means necessary — in this case, at the expense of whatever carbon-based life forms it can find, including and especially Ryan Reynolds. And so the tin can turns into the inside of a dog bowl, and every time the Japanese astronaut, Sho, promises to make it back to his newborn child, you know that he’s not going to make it back to his newborn child.
In this way, Life resembles any number of closed-environment monster movies that have preceded it, most notably Alien. But where Life takes its big swing is the ending. On the verge of what appears to be certain death, their fight against Calvin having rendered the International Space Station both freezing cold and hurtling back to Earth, David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) concoct a plan: Jordan will lure Calvin into one of the escape capsules with him, allowing himself to be devoured so that the alien will be consigned to deep space — the monster-movie equivalent of taking one for the team. North, meanwhile, will take the other capsule back to Earth, where she’ll tell Donald Trump to nuke Mars.
Most movies would end with a shot of Rebecca Ferguson back on our beautiful planet, swaddled in a thousand blankets, her face a mask of terror, safe but sure to be haunted forever by the sight of her all her co-workers getting eaten. That is not how Life ends. After one capsule goes hurtling into space and one lands in the ocean, the movie slowly reveals there’s been a bait and switch: The one hurtling into space contains North, screaming the way you can only scream if you’re being hurled toward your own lonely death. Which, of course, means the one on Earth contains Calvin. A few fishermen open the capsule against the pleas of a not-yet-completely-devoured Jordan, and there’s Calvin, ready to greet the day.
It takes a certain amount of courage to end your film on such a note. It also takes a certain amount of perversity, and, because those two qualities are inseparable from the experience of watching horror movies in the first place, they don’t feel incompatible with the ending of this one. But that doesn’t make the outcome of Life any less jarring, or less of a downer. It also doesn’t banish one of the audience’s major questions going in: Is this a Venom prequel?
Such a rumor got started in the pages of Foreign Policy — just kidding, of course it came from Reddit. It was based on the shared presence of the same stock footage in the trailers for Life and Spider Man 3, as well as recent progress toward making a stand-alone Venom movie by Sony, the studio that made Life. Amusingly, the writers and director of Life have played ball, refusing to dismiss the rumors, though, after seeing the film, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the filmmakers or Sony intended any connection.
Not that that means anything: 10 Cloverfield Lane was just a spec script called The Cellar when J.J. Abrams’s company, Bad Robot, purchased it in 2012, then decided to bring a young whippersnapper named Damien Chazelle on board to do a rewrite and direct. But it wasn’t until another director named Dan Trachtenberg took over — Chazelle still ended up receiving a screenplay credit — that it was retrofitted to exist in the Cloverfield world.
What this means for Life, then, is that Sony doesn’t even need to have realized prior to release that it wanted the film to be a prequel to Venom — it could decide that now, or a month from now, or a year from now, particularly if those rumors play any part in pushing Life to a better-than-expected box-office take. While we see no evidence in Life that Calvin has anything to do with the “symbiote” that turns Eddie Brock and Peter Parker into Venom, it has a similarly antagonistic relationship with people, and who knows how it adapts to its newfound life on Earth? Maybe taking over somebody’s body starts to seem like a swell idea — after all, a hyperintuitive extraterrestrial whose entire body is a brain can only eat so many insides before it starts to get lonely. In the universe of comic-book movies, the world has certainly survived far more threatening interlopers than one alien riding solo.
In fact, this alternative vision of Life, improbable as it is, seems preferable in many ways to the actual ending — because when that ending is seen in isolation, it’s hard not to write humanity off as a goner. And if superhero movies offer any single comfort, it’s that something, anything, needs to survive for the sequel.