by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent
What is it with ‘ripped from the alt-news headlines’ movie plots lately? KONG: SKULL ISLAND has a hollow earth slash reptilian b-story, even a CIA mind control “Monarch” reference on a briefcase. Now LIFE, starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, has a waterborne microbe from Mars mass-extinction horror twist.While scary stories about hostile life on Mars is a running theme since B-movies in the 50’s, this one has some actual science to back it up.
LIFE, directed by Daniel Espinosa, touts the fact that the producers and writers consulted with “astrobiologists and space medicine experts,” one of whom is Dr. Kevin Fong. “Space is an extreme environment, like any of the extreme environments we’ve attempted to conquer in the 20th century – deserts, polar ice caps, our highest mountains,” Fong explained. “What we know about extreme environments is that you can’t go there for long and it’s not without penalty. You come back literally less than the person you were.”
“It’s hard enough to stay alive up there on a routine mission when everything goes right. When things start to go wrong, people start to die off pretty quickly.” These cheery words underscore his experience as an astrophysicist and MD who’s worked on NASA’s Human Adaptation and Countermeasures Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston, meaning he is a medical expert on keeping folks alive and kicking in space.
No offense to the astro-geniuses, but frankly movie stars can explain a movie better.
In typical Jake Gyllenhaal extreme-character mode, he plays International Space Station denizen David Jordan, who’s already clocked 473 days afloat in outer space. “It was a beautifully paced, terrifying script. It’s a fun idea. You think you know where it’s going, and then it evolves into something where you really, really don’t,” he added. “The life form is literal, but it’s also an incredible metaphor for what can happen. Curiosity is one of the most important human traits, but I think searching too far can be full of hubris. In that way, the life form is a repercussion for that kind of curiosity.”
“My grandfather was a doctor,” Gyllenhaal shared, “and Daniel and I talked about the similarities in my character to my grandfather. It’s a bit of an homage to him.”
Next some newcomers join the freaky plot, and things get terrifying as a look for proof of life on Mars backfires. Naturally the movie includes a requisite CDC, Centers for Disease Control, rep. This one comes in the form of Rebecca Ferguson, as Miranda North. “Miranda is a microbiologist sent up to protect everyone on Earth from whatever this is that we find,” Ferguson explained.
Her character puts up some “firewalls” against extra-terrestrial contamination. “The firewall is, first, the container that the specimen was in. And then the room. And then the station itself. She has to do whatever she can do to protect Earth, because we don’t know what this life form is.” No, it’s not a gimmicky ‘life form,’ either.
Producer Julie Lynn nailed it best on that front. “We didn’t want the life form to be a person in a suit or a puppet. We wanted it to be something that could evolve from a cellular piece, a tiny cell. It’s not that it comes out with an intent to do harm; it is its own creature, and it is affected by what happens to it.”
Rebecca Ferguson spins it as a relationship game with the pathogen. “We all have our own relationship to this creature. Some of us love it, we nurture it. Some of us want to kill it off in the beginning. And that creates an incredible tension in the group,” she said.
Ryan Reynolds rounds it out with, “this script had such a degree of reality and a feeling of constant tension,” that he reteamed with his DEADPOOL writing pals Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, to ratchet up the stakes. Coincidentally, Reynolds also went back to the well with his SAFE HOUSE director Daniel Espinosa.
Having worked well with Reynolds, Espinosa is also super excited about LIFE. “I think the reason so many great directors have walked into science fiction is to work with the unknown — the fear or fascination with the unknown,” he said. “We live in a world that is quite mundane, but in space, you enter an adventure – you don’t know how it looks, how it feels, what it can do to you, where it is. It doesn’t make a sound. That’s terrifying.”
Whatever the hell LIFE’s monster is in this case, the SAFE HOUSE director made it even scarier when he added that “this script felt more like a realistic science fiction. Maybe science reality.” Picture waking up ’50,000-year-old microbes’ inside crystalline hibernation on Mars, that is. Or, in movie critic shorthand, the DNA from amber plot device from Jurassic Park, but with super-freaky outer space Martian microbial goo meets Alien. Sorry for the gross oversimplification but this helps put your fears to rest, folks, because it’s only a movie. We hope. Alternative news purveyors might spin it as a doomsday scenario for planet Earth, lol. LIFE, go see it before it happens. It opens Mar. 24, brought to you by Skydance and SONY (Columbia). Interestingly, Megan Ellison’s brother David Ellison is listed as a producer. The film has bowed in Berlin, Moscow, Paris, and at SXSW in Austin, Texas last week. [Most of the photos included are from SXSW premiere.] See their official website for showtimes and venues. Hahtag #LIFEMOVIE
Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Vicki Dee Rock
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