Daniel Espinosa’s highly anticipated sci-fi thriller, Life, isn’t just 2017’s answer to Alien — it’s much scarier. Unlike most movies in the genre, Life is terrifying because it taps into legitimate concerns about contaminating Earth that even NASA, ESA and other space agencies haven’t entirely figured out — the fear that in our longing to discover alien life, we bring something back to our planet that could destroy it.
Image: Sony Pictures
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Life follows a team of astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as they struggle — and mostly die — trying to contain a hostile Martian life form. The baby alien, which is nicknamed “Calvin”, feasts on tasty human flesh to satiate its hunger, though there may be some sort of sadistic thrill involved, too. For what it’s worth, Calvin looks like an angry head of lettuce, which unintentionally provides comic relief during the gruesome death scenes. At some point, you can’t help but root for the guy.
Fans of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain or H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds are already familiar with the particular brand of terror known as backward contamination; basically, it’s the idea that we — the humans — act as vessels for dangerous hitchhikers, unintentionally bringing a deadly bug back to Earth. This could lead to contamination and, in the worst case scenario, complete annihilation of the human race.
For this reason and its converse, forward contamination — in which humans bring something dangerous to another planet — NASA has its own office of planetary protection, which is committed to “promot[ing] the responsible exploration of the solar system” and “ensur[ing] that we take prudent precautions to protect Earth’s biosphere in case life does exist elsewhere”. The name is a bit misleading, considering it isn’t much of an office: There’s only one person in the entire department, Dr Catharine Conley. We reached out to Conley but had not heard back at time of writing.
From a planetary protection standpoint, it’s difficult to gauge how well the crew from Life did in their efforts to contain Calvin, simply because there’s currently no protocol in place on how to handle extraterrestrial life. The crew members pretty much have free reign to handle Calvin as they see fit, even if that means implementing dubious measures like electrocuting the crap out of him. Spoiler alert: This does not end well.
Image: Sony Pictures
But this might not be far from how such an encounter would actually go down, which is even scarier than fiction. According to Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute — an organisation that searches for extraterrestrial life — crew members aboard the ISS probably wouldn’t have stuck to backwards contamination protocol, even if there was one in place.
“In the case of Mars, if you brought a rock back, you’d keep it in a box and you’d make sure it was handled carefully, like potentially dangerous material,” he explained. “But if you were on the ISS… could you single-handedly decide to shock it with 2000 volts and see what it’d do? I suspect they could do that, since NASA doesn’t try and remote control these guys all together.” That said, seeing as alien life would be the most groundbreaking discovery in human history, it’s fair to surmise there’d be lots of communication with NASA over how to handle it. Whether the astronauts would adhere to the agency’s advice is a different story.
Shostak noted that the real scientific flub in the film is assuming — like so many sci-fi thrillers do — that an alien would want anything to do with us at all, never mind eat us.
“This guy’s biology is nicely attuned to eat humans, even though he probably has never encountered a human before,” he said. “That’s pretty much like you going to Mars and starting to eat the dirt and the rocks and figuring you’ll get your nutrition that way.”
In short, we’d probably make a pretty unappetising meal for an alien life form. Meanwhile, things that can actually kill us are already all around us.
“There’s this idea that extraterrestrial lifeforms can make us sick, it’s the working Andromeda Strain idea,” Shostak said. “It’s kind of weird, because you think of the kinds of things that do make you sick — bacteria and viruses — they have been sharing an evolutionary path with you for four billion years. They know all about what’s in your body that they need — these guys won’t.”
Image: Sony Pictures
There’s a deeper terror lurking in Life — one that grows out of our quixotic longing to find life beyond Earth. Calvin is a tangible fear, but he also represents the loneliness that latches onto us and, over time, consumes us. This sort of anxiety no doubt is exacerbated if a person is watching Earth from about 400km above it — so close to everyone they love, and yet hundreds of kilometres out of reach. Whether it’s Dr David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) tearfully reading the lines from his childhood favourite book, Goodnight Moon, or mechanic Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) remarking on how much he misses his dog, it’s evident that all the characters in Life are reaching for the world they left behind. With Calvin, who literally attaches himself to people and eviscerates them from the inside-out, the film forces us to question whether or not we’re alone in the universe, but more importantly, why our own loneliness causes us to self-sabotage.
Life is not just another movie about doom in space — it’s about the quiet, and inexhaustible anxiety we carry with us no matter where we go.