Scribbler’s Saga #21 – Plot Gymnastics

Posted: March 28, 2017 in Uncategorized

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

Ironically, I liked Sony’s recent SF/Horror flick Life, so this isn’t a review in the normal sense of the word. I see it as a case study of simplicity versus excessive plot gymnastics, sometimes also referred to as a literary version of Occam’s Razor (simple is usually better). It all stems from one plot point where the filmmakers had two ways to get to the same ending.  

One choice was narratively simple based on the rules of the monster presented to the audience. The other choice didn’t exactly violate the rules of the monster either and might have an ugly budgetary reason for existence, but which then created the need to spend the last half of the movie pulling some very inventive tricks to leap over the plot hole. The filmmakers chose Option Two.

This next part I have to write carefully so you don’t misunderstand me and assume that this post is a review where I’m backhandedly trashing a bad movie or gushingly praising a good movie. But, what I noticed about this movie will take on a few elements of a review so you understand my point.

If this were a review, my hypothetical positive review would be filled with the more grammatically digestible of adverbs or adjectives intended for use as single-word pull quotes surrounded by ellipses on the poster (mostly true, I did like the movie). If this were a review, my negative comments would expand like a virus from the plot hole under discussion to find minor flaws to balloon into titanic vitriol, snark and animus about the acting, lighting, writing, directing, composing and on down to the poor intern relegated to the craft service table passing out cookies and sandwiches. But, because the plot choice under discussion doesn’t violate the rules for the monster, it’s not bad writing per se, just extra complex writing. The scenic route for the movie instead of the direct express bus.

I’m sure Life was pitched as – Alien meets Gravity, set on the International Space Station, with a monster derived from actual conversations with exobiologists and a different ending than Alien. And it delivers. It’s not a review. I liked the movie. Stop bugging me.

Horror movies that get compared to Alien have two endings: Final Girl (waiting for some intrepid filmmaker to do a Final Guy version, just to see how sexist we are, but I digress) and They All Die and the Monster Escapes. At the moment, saying how Alien ended tells you how Life ended, so I’ll take the Fifth here.

The monster awakened on the ISS from Martian soil samples fired back to Earth from a Mars probe proved to be interesting. Each cell dormant since the water disappeared from the Martian surface is described as “All muscle, all nerve, all optics receptor…all at the same time.” And the doomed human scientists figure several important things out about Calvin (the unfortunate nickname from a school naming contest).

It breathes oxygen. It eats similar food to most carbon-based life. It goes dormant in the absence of oxygen. Each cell is part of a highly intelligent single entity. It has a robust outer shell combined with the ability to store up oxygen to survive extended periods in hard vacuum.

So, I watch the movie digesting my Pad Thai Chicken. The first scientist to have trouble with Calvin, lingers a while in an injured state. Calvin officially kills a character played by Ryan Reynolds first, possibly because the actor had to run off to finish Deadpool 2 and didn’t have the time to be a star this time around. However, the first scientist injured is hurt in a way that everyone who has seen Alien is totally screaming – “face-hugger and chest-burster!” – at the screen. He was nicked and left to linger while we assume cells from Calvin grow inside him.

This reveal happens while Calvin lurks outside the station banging on the hatches to get in. And then the poor scientist who is inside the station coughs up some blood, dies and his friends open up his clothes to reveal Calvin snacking on the man’s legs. At this moment, I think the hungry white goo has grown into two halves of a larger smarter monster.

However, the filmmakers only chose to show the audience one Calvin for the rest of the movie. They don’t show us if Calvin 1.0 outside dies or goes dormant (we are told it can do this explaining why the species survived on Mars for millions of years). Suddenly, it’s inside and racing towards the end of the movie where…

Dancing around telling you what the ending was, you’ll just have to trust me that two Calvins is a simpler approach to that ending. All the filmmakers had to do was show, however briefly, what happened to the outside the station half of the monster. Perhaps, they show us this in flashback if they feel they need to preserve the body shot of the chosen route. But, it was dropped in favor of not paying for double the CG even though and the gymnastics required for only one monster are more complex and not simple.

Did I enjoy the movie? Yes. But, I noticed what a pretzel the narrative became once the filmmakers didn’t put two Calvins on screen.
And who am I kidding yeah it’s a review.

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