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.”
Rebecca Ferguson in Life. All Images: Sony
“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 soon.
Life is in cinemas now.