Why the latest sci-fi horror film Life is both realistic and adventurous
For Hollywood, 2017 is fast becoming the year of sci-fi. To come, Scarlett Johansson stars in the live-action remake of Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell, and Luc Besson introduces us to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based on the comic series by Pierre Christin. Ridley Scott returns with Alien: Covenant and Denis Villeneuve brings Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Scott’s own seminal 1982 classic. And in December, Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be upon us.
With all this competition, the makers of Life must be relieved that their movie arrives ahead of the pack. Moreover, they can rest assured their film is the one that comes inspired by reality. It was back in 2012 when the script first began developing, just as Nasa’s Curiosity Rover landed on Mars to explore the planet.
“We had the idea of what if it discovered new life on Mars and brought it back to the International Space Station for analysis,” says producer David Ellison.
It is this notion that forms the core of Life, a sci-fi horror set on the claustrophobic confines of the space station. With the ensemble cast led by Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation star Rebecca Ferguson, it is a classic set-up.
Six characters, all experts in their field, discover a single-celled organism, which swiftly gets named Calvin back on Earth, amid the growing hype. But after a series of events, this remarkable life-force grows into something altogether more deadly.
On board leading the line is Reynolds’s Rory Adams, a mission specialist who is particularly skilled at spacewalking. “I’m sort of the guy who is a little bit more of a sceptic,” says Reynolds. “I’m not a scientist, I’m not a doctor, I’m not somebody who is in a position of power. I’m just a guy that has some slight creeping dread about what’s going on. Why we are up there, what this mission is about – not from an ethical standpoint, just a more primal standpoint.” Others joining him include Gyllenhaal’s doctor David Jordan, who has been out in space longer than any other crew member, and Ferguson’s microbiologist Miranda North, who is out to protect Earth. In preparation, Gyllenhaal looked to his own grandfather, who was a surgeon.
“He had been through a lot of traumatic situations as has this character, so I’ve drawn a lot from my grandfather,” he says. “He is a nice inspiration for me. He died a year ago, so it is nice to be up with him in space, a little bit.”
The film was shot at London’s Shepperton Studios, where four sound stages were meticulously converted into a mock-up of the space station. Like 2013’s Oscar-winning Gravity, the film replicates perfectly the feeling of floating in space.
The actors had to work intensely with movement coaches to replicate zero gravity, harnessed on wires. Gyllenhaal compares it to being a marionette, albeit with huge numbers of puppeteers manipulating them around the set. “You sort of have to surrender to it,” says Reynolds.
With the script provided by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the co-writers behind Reynolds’s anti-superhero smash Deadpool, the actor is also familiar with the film’s director Daniel Espinosa. The Swedish-born filmmaker previously worked with Reynolds on the 2012 thriller Safe House. “He does a great thing…he listens to the movie,” says Reynolds. “He really listens to it. He does not go: ‘Oh, in the pages are this and this’. He watches, sees what’s happening and adjusts. The movie morphs and changes.”
With real-life Nasa experts drafted in to advise the actors, it created a very different atmosphere on set. Espinosa managed “to make an environment where it feels all real”, says Gyllenhaal, rather than point the cast to watching classic sci-fi films for homework.
“There was a little bit of looking at things, what it was really like to be floating in space, and what movies can do and cannot do, where something works and where it does not, [but that was it],” he says.
Admittedly, any sci-fi horror set in the cramped corridors and white-walled laboratories of a spacecraft immediately calls to mind Ridley Scott’s landmark Alien. Espinosa even claims they used real sets “to honour Ridley”. But Life is different in that it is set in present-day, dealing with science and not fiction. What Nasa scientists announced during the film’s production – that they were increasingly confident of finding life on Mars – only serves to reinforce the film’s realism.
Of course, the real question is would these actors ever really consider going into space?
“I would go up,” says Reynolds. Gyllenhaal adds: “I’ve watched so many numerous documentaries on people who actually go out there and, yeah, it’s awe-inspiring, but it is also unfathomable.”
“Personally, honestly, I do not know if I have the courage. But conquering fear…that is what courage is.”
• Life opens in cinemas on Thursday, 21 March.