Credit “Life” director Daniel Espinosa with courage. The Swedish filmmaker has made a horror-in-space feature starring Jake Gyllenhaal, a film that centers around a vicious alien that slowly picks off spacecraft crew members, and he doesn’t even wait for the question about comparisons to Ridley Scott’s seminal “Alien.” He jumps right into it.
“For me, one of the great references, the great movies, the movie that is an obvious comparison, [which has that] great, great, glorious breakfast scene which everybody aspires to is ‘Alien,'” he said.
Rather than scary set pieces, it’s the smaller stuff that gets him, he said, the parts that rely more on character development and connection. That’s what excited him about the genre, not the actual alien at its heart.
“I think that most directors have a kind of secret ambition of sci-fi,” Espinosa said. “Even great glorious artists, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Scott, went into this genre, and modern heroes like Cuaron and Nolan. There’s something with the sci-fi genre that attracts us directors: You’re doing something in a confinement of a genre, but in that confinement you’re allowed to pursue characters.”
A Journey Inward
His leading man cared even less about genre. For Gyllenhaal, it was all about fear.
“I read this script and I was terrified,” he said. “Daniel had a take on it that I really loved. It was much more psychological, and really about a journey inward as a opposed to sort of a journey outward.”
Written by “Deadpool” scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, “Life” follows a group of astronauts and scientists on the International Space Station. The crew is reasonably content until they pick up a probe that includes Mars soil samples. When they isolate a single living cell, they inadvertently jump-start the evolution of a terrifying new species, one bent on taking out everyone on the ship.
The director’s focus on character tapped into the explorations that Gyllenhaal likes, which are also the sort of thing that ratchet the film’s tension. Gyllenhaal’s character, Dr. David Jordan, goes through his own evolutions over the course of the film, mostly foisted upon him by the once-tiny alien creature he comes to know as “Calvin.”
Espinosa’s vision for the film was about “how we all each related to this creature in our own individual ways, and how that saved us or destroyed us,” Gyllenhaal said. “That, to me, is what makes me want to do a movie.”
Espinosa’s most recent film was “Child 44” (a Lionsgate flop); before that, he directed Universal’s $200-million grossing “Safe House,” which is where he first worked with Gyllenhaal’s co-star, Ryan Reynolds. That resume might not make him the most obvious pick for a big studio film about aliens run amok (“I come from social realism in Europe,” Espinosa said, chuckling), but the filmmaker saw something familiar in Reese and Wernick’s script.
“I thought it would be interesting to do a sci-fi movie that was not like ‘Alien,’ which took place in a very, very far-off future in a sort of dystopian neo-punk world,” Espinosa said. “This is not the sci-fi movie in the realms of the impossible. This is something that could happen tomorrow.”
“This Is Something That Could Happen Tomorrow”
Setting the film on the present-day ISS roots it in a reality that’s closer to “Gravity” than the “Alien” franchise. And while the discovery of Calvin is unnerving, it’s not impossible.
“Portraying it in the most realistic way possible is what makes it scary,” Gyllenhaal said. “They are moving toward finding life; they did just find essentially frozen water on Mars. All of those factors make it much different than your idea of science fiction.”
He added, “It’s happening at the International Space Station, not some sort of made-up space station in the future that people don’t know about. All of it is real.”
Even what Calvin becomes is grounded in science. To create the look and feel of the ever-evolving alien, Espinosa turned first to geneticist Adam Rutherford (“I gave him the rule set of what created Calvin, then I put him in a room and I locked the door and he was not allowed to come out”), and then to the graffiti artist Ziggy, whose dark aesthetic Espinosa found compelling.
“I thought, if I can meet Ziggy with the science of Adam, I would come up with something that is not just truthful, but also interesting and of course, scary as fuck,” Espinosa said. “And that’s what we did.”
Espinosa was also compelled by Calvin’s character arc, one that gives the Martian antagonist its own path to travel.
“When we encounter Calvin in the beginning, he’s not maleficent,” Espinosa said. “I think that in the other sci-fi movies, the unknown is always a threat. In my movie, the unknown is created somewhat by us. It’s not a question of what unknown does to us, but what do we do to the unknown.”
Initially imagined as a single cell, Calvin starts growing – and changing – with the introduction of various stimuli, from glucose injections to human interaction.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures
“Calvin takes impressions from his surroundings,” the filmmaker said. “The first scene, he encounters a hand, that’s why he has five limbs. There are all these clues of the adaptability of Calvin that, of course, you don’t see the first time and that’s fine.”
Survival of the Fittest
Gyllenhaal is slightly more philosophical about Calvin, and was eager to explore the alien’s psychological wounds in ways that most sci-fi features don’t.
“I loved that how we relate to it, is how it relates to us,” Gyllenhaal said. “I mean, imagine what it would feel like to be taken from your home, put into a strange space station in a box, and then poked, prodded, and electrocuted, like how would you try to survive?”
Gyllenhaal’s character – a long-time ISS resident who is not eager to go back to Earth – eventually forms the most lasting bond with Calvin as the film hurdles towards its terrifying final moments.
“That’s what Daniel and I talked about early on, maybe I wasn’t as frightened as was really curious,” Gyllenhaal said. “Perhaps my sense of observation would lead me to where I eventually end up, which is sort of strangely connected to it as opposed to against it or fighting it.”
But could that fight extend past a single film? Unlike the ever-expanding “Alien” franchise (which will debut its latest installment on May 19, theprequel “Alien: Covenant”), “Life” might be a standalone feature. Although Wernick and Reese have said they’re open to spending more time in the “Life” universe, there’s no plans yet.
“It’s never been an interest of mine, necessarily,” Gyllenhaal said when asked about franchises. “I’m not one to be like, ‘Well, if they did something interesting I wouldn’t want to be involved,’ but no.”
As for internet rumors that Sony intends the film to be a backdoor “Spider-Man” sequel, one organized around alien monster Venom? Gyllenhaal laughed. “So much weird shit, people,” the actor said. “That would be smarter than any of us are.”
Espinosa is more pointed.
“I would not make a sequel,” the filmmaker said. “For the rest of my career. Every time you do something good, people want to do sequels. That’s just the nature of the business. It’s like I’ve walked down the path once, and then why do it again?”
And wouldn’t that be original?
“Life” lands in theaters on Friday, March 24.