The Filmmakers Behind Life Strived to Make a Realistic, Modern Version of Alien

Everyone involved with the new film Life knows exactly what you were thinking. You saw the trailer—people in space being chased by a menacing creature—and immediately assumed, “Great, someone’s ripping off Alien.”

“It occurred to all of us,” said Rhett Miller, who wrote the film with Paul Wernick. “And it’s kind of hard to believe, but Alien is a near 40-year-old movie. It’s not even one generation ago, it’s two generations ago. So that filled us with inspiration, but also a sense that we could do it and not feel like we were stomping on that wonderful movie.”

In Life, a diverse group of astronauts on the International Space Station in the near future find the first proof of alien life. They begin to study it, but things go wrong and then it’s just a matter of who lives, who dies, and whether or not the astronauts can keep the killer alien, nicknamed Calvin, away from Earth.

“There are true, differentiating moments [from Alien],” said director Daniel Espinosa. “Alien takes place in a kind of dystopian future, this takes place tomorrow or today. We have found water on Mars, if we found something on the surface we would send it to the ISS. This could happen. It was thrilling to me.”

Life does have a sort of ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy, which is unique for a science fiction movie. It’s almost “science fact-ion,” in a way. And that’s what David Ellison, the CEO of Skydance, wanted when he first conceived the idea for the film. “He came to us with the idea of a sample of life being brought back from Mars that then, once exposed to the atmosphere on the ISS, comes backs to life and starts to attack the crew,” Miller said. He and Wernick, who together wrote Zombieland and Deadpool, worked on the script for about five months before Espinosa, who directed Safe House, was approached.

“It was love at first sight,” the director said. “I read the script and it had great energy and pulsation throughout the picture. There were good characters to work out and it had these great turns that I thought were quite fascinating.”

There was also a technical challenge that excited the director. Because Life is set on the International Space Station close to present day, everyone would have to be weightless for the entire movie.

“The producers forced me to remove it at the beginning,” said Espinosa. “They wanted me to put in these kind of fake gravity areas on the ISS and, for me, that destroyed the raison d’etre of the movie. The raison d’etre of the movie is that it’s real and that it’s based on something we know.”

To make things real, Espinosa had much of the ISS completely recreated on a London soundstage. Actors performed on wires to give that weightless feeling. He decided to save money by forgoing a second unit, meaning he had to shoot everything himself. Every dollar is on the screen and every effect is as real as possible, except the alien of course. But even the alien had real roots.

Though of course nothing like Calvin actually exists (hopefully), the writers were inspired by underwater creatures and the director took those ideas to real scientists to come up with something that was as plausible as possible. The result is a small organism that eventually becomes a translucent, almost flower-like creature. As far as “This is what an alien might actually look like,” goes, Life is probably as close as we can get. Beyond that, Calvin also represents something quite personal for the director.

“In these times, there is a lot of fear about the unknown,” Espinosa said. “And it can take different forms. [And we wonder] what would happen if they enter our space?”

Plus, Life does something different with its creature. “The difference between my movie and others is at the beginning, Calvin is not maleficent,” Espinosa said. “The question is as we continue treating it, ‘Would this have happened?’ To me Calvin is a representation of the worst side of us.”

But Life is a representation of the best in filmmaking. It’s an original property that gives audiences something familiar in a new way. There are big stars, great effects and camera work, and terrifying, escalating tension. That’s especially true of the ending, but we’ll have more on that next week.

Life opens March 24.

Rebecca Ferguson in Life. All Images: Sony

Life: EW review

As much as it wants to be, the new deep-space thriller Life is no Alien. Then again, what is? What could be? When Ridley Scott directed his 1979 no one-can-hear-you-scream masterpiece, there were still rules to break and boundaries to push. He giddily broke and pushed all of them, combining what were dismissed as two distinct and disreputable gutter genres (science fiction and horror) and fusing them into one glorious chest-bursting hybrid. You could be intelligent and graphically gooey at the same time. Who knew? In fact, it was possible that by doing so you could even approach something like art. Life doesn’t aspire to be art. Which is fine. Not everything has to. I only bring up Alien because that’s how the movie is being sold. Still, if you lower your sights a few pegs and go in looking for a solid, tight B-movie that builds right until the final shot, there’s a lot to like.

Life tracks the fates of six astronauts aboard the International Space Station. They’re making a pitstop on their way home from Mars, where they found microscopic evidence of single-cell life forms, and they’ve got the history-making specimens with them. Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House, Child 44) gets off to a somewhat muddled start, fumbling what could have been a concise table-setting tour of the spacecraft, but instead he turns it into a murky maze. We never really know where we are. All we know is that it’s dark and as cramped and claustrophobic as a casket, which is essentially what we know it will become over the next hour and a half. The introduction of the crew and their gumbo of accents is only slight more coherent: There’s Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation) as the no-nonsense rep from the Centers for Disease Control; Jake Gyllenhaal as the slightly depressive chief medical officer; Ryan Reynolds as (what else?) the wisecracking scientist tossing off Re-Animator references; Ariyon Bakare (Jupiter Ascending) as the ship’s exobiologist with withered CG legs (which seems like a very pricey method of character building); Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya as a Boris-and-Natasha-sounding cosmonaut; and Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine) as a Japanese engineer and proud father of a newborn back on Earth.

Espinosa and his screenwriters, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the team behind Deadpool), don’t make us care about the crewmembers as much as they probably think they do. But they more than make up for it as soon as Bakare zaps the Martian amoeba to dancing life. That’s when the movie zaps to life too. Suddenly, there’s a seventh member onboard. They name it “Calvin.” And it’s growing fast. It’s also adaptive and intelligent and aggressive. But Bakare’s scientist is too smitten with his new discovery to absorb any of this until it crushes his hand like a walnut in a vise and breaks loose, squishily scampering through the ducts and vents. What was once minuscule and harmless is now as big as an octopus, as transparent as jellyfish, and as fast as a cockroach when the lights come on. No one onboard knows what they’re dealing with and how deadly it might be. They just know that they’re trapped in a tight space with something very, very angry.

It’s not giving anything away to say that from this point on, Life is basically a zero-gravity bodycount flick — And Then There Were None in space. The crew tries every way it can to kill the thing, but Calvin won’t die. I kept waiting for Jeff Goldblum to show up on their communication screen to say, “Life…uh…finds a way.” Espinosa stages some clever scares and creative kills while the crew make one bone-headed decision after another in their bid to survive (they have a particular knack for opening hatches when they should stay closed). Then again, watching smart people make dumb choices is one of cinema’s deepest pleasures. Life isn’t a great movie (in fact, it’s kind of a mess). But it is a really fun one. Somehow it manages to keep pushing enough joy-buzzer buttons to keep the audience on edge until the last scene. If it feels like Life succeeds in spite of itself, the important thing is that it succeeds. B+

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