In Life, a six-person team of astronauts and scientists on the International Space Station make an incredible discovery: hibernating inside a soil sample retrieved from Mars is an ancient single-cell organism that they are able to revive, making it the first truly extra-terrestrial form of life encountered by humankind. But as the organism, nicknamed Calvin, continues to grow, its own survival instincts kick in and the creature becomes a threat not just to the crew on the ISS but to the Earth below.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson, Life is a gritty sci-fi thriller that references both the horror of a movie like Alien and the cold science of ‘70s fare like The Andromeda Strain. It’s also a more sobering and even macabre outing from writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whose previous hits include the far more lighthearted Zombieland and Deadpool. We got on the phone with Reese and Wernick to discuss the origins of the story, writing real science, whether it’s a Venom prequel and what’s up with Deadpool 2.
Den of Geek: There’s a great tradition of astronauts and scientists battling alien intruders, but what inspired the way you guys wanted to approach it?
Rhett Reese: (Producer) David Ellison came to us with the idea, which was, what if we had an alien life form brought back from Mars to today’s International Space Station for study. We loved that, because we just thought, “Oh my God, that’s not a really science fiction movie. It’s a science faction movie.” That’s something that could actually happen now, basically. We have the technology to make that happen, and in theory this could happen tomorrow. And so it allowed us to do real-life research on the station and how it works, how long it’s been there, who’s on it, things like that. Then we brought that to life in a weightless environment where you’re trying to flee a terrifying creature and you’re not able to use your legs to run away from it. That really appealed to us, and we ran with it from there.
Did you do a lot of research into the real protocols of how something like this would be handled?
Paul Wernick: I mean, we tried to get as real as possible. We obviously spent a fair amount of time on the internet. NASA has documented quite extensively what life is like up there and how things work, everything from eating to showering to scientific protocols, so. We did a lot of research leading up to putting pen to paper on this one. And then once we did, we sat with microbiologists and astrophysicists and a lot of people with many degrees and PhDs at the back of their name to kind of true it up, so that it could sustain the scrutiny of the Neil DeGrasse Tysons of the world. And again, just try to ground it as much as possible. Whereas Alien was a movie that’s set in the future that forces your mind to take many, many leaps before you get to the drama of the moment, we wanted to really, really embrace this idea that it was of today, so that was making it as grounded and real as possible.
What’s ironic is that the Martians were kind of the go-to bad guys in all the old movies from the ‘50s, and now we’re actually at the point where we may well discover that there might have been Martians after all a few million years ago.
Rhett Reese: Yeah! That was kind of the concept of the movie. And every day you read about, “Well, they discovered a new cell down in a fossil in Siberia that’s a new species.” We’re discovering them even on Earth. So it’s just not that hard to imagine this happening.
When did Avi Arad slip you the check to make this a Venom prequel?
Rhett Reese (laughing): That’s a very good question. The irony being that we worked on a Venom script many years ago. So Avi Arad’s already slipped us the check many years ago. Unfortunately our draft is in a drawer somewhere, and it’s not likely to see the light of day. But, that said, we think it’s hilarious. Like, really, really funny and a great fan theory. The great thing about the internet is there’s always someone out there who’s just a little crazier than you are. We never considered it. That said, if you want to propagate the rumor, please do.
Paul Wernick: It’s reasonable that this could be the symbiote that ends up back on Earth that attaches himself to Eddie Brock. It’s not that far-fetched a theory. “Ryan Reynolds…is…Eddie Brock.”
Rhett Reese: Yeah. Run with that.
When you write the script, do you kind of have a loose idea of what you want the creature to look like? And how does that translate in terms of handing it off to the director and the designers and bringing it to life on screen?
Paul Wernick: Yeah, I think Calvin is one of the seven or eight main characters of this movie and really the villain of the piece. So you really do have to visualize it as a writer to sit down and create this world and character and how he interact with all your other characters. So yes, we laid it out, we did our research and studied deep sea creatures and translucents underwater. The octopus was another touchstone for us in terms of how they move, and then how they ingeniously improvise and overcome physical problems. Once that’s on the page, then it’s up to Daniel and creature design and visual effects to bring it to life in a way that’ll elevate it. And they have in a way that we couldn’t have ever imagined. So we gave them a launching point and then they evolved the character from the page up onto the screen and made Calvin even more terrifying than we could have ever imagined.
What’s interesting about him, too, is that he’s not malevolent. He’s just essentially a form of life that’s trying to survive in the most primal way it can. He’s doing what he has to do.
Rhett Reese: Yeah. We really didn’t want to make it that it was a higher intelligence that was looking to take us down, or anything like that. Or even that it was our fault for harming it and it was trying to get revenge, or something like that. We just wanted to explore the idea that life itself is cruel and life itself involves a struggle for survival in which one creature, in order to survive, has to kill and consume another. And that’s what our crew is faced with — the fact that this creature is just trying to survive, and they just happen to be in its way. And it’s very, very adapted to its circumstances and it’s hardy and it’s hard to kill. That was just, in and of itself, terrifying. We didn’t need the Paul Reiser evil antagonist who’s looking to bring it back down to Earth. We didn’t need it to have some big, fat brain. It was just going to be scary because it was trying to make it through its day.
We obviously want to get out there and I think we’d like to find other life out there. We’d like to answer questions about the universe. But there’s also the flip side of that, which is the great science fiction trope, “Man should not meddle with things he doesn’t understand.” Is it important to make sure you have a balance of that so it’s not just, “We’ve got to stay out of space”?
Rhett Reese: Well, I do think that we represent both viewpoints in the film. I mean, the upside of discovery is that you might discover something that’s very helpful, and that viewpoint is expressed. It’s not the culmination of what happens in this movie, but Calvin might just as easily have given humans the insight into how to cure cancer or paralysis or whatever it is. So it’s a balance. Science is amoral, and discovery is amoral. It really is about what you discover, and what you do with that discovery that matters. We wanted to make that philosophical point in the movie.
Do you think people will be surprised at how serious this is, coming from you guys? Your previous films are known for being a little jauntier, I would say.
Paul Wernick: Yeah, we embraced the idea of replacing the laughs with scares and thrills and horror. And so, as much as people go and see a Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick movie – I’m not sure people even have any idea outside of Hollywood what that means – yes, I think it will be a nice departure for us and something we enjoyed doing, and hopefully the audience will enjoy it as well.
I have to ask you guys about Deadpool 2, because there’s been a lot of news as far as directors changing, and then you guys wrote a script and now Drew Goddard is kind of involved in it. Can I ask, from the inside, what’s going on, and what’s your involvement with it at this point?
Paul Wernick: We’re every day on it. Drew has been a consultant on the project, and is a wonderful, creative voice that’s helped guide us. But in terms of writing, we have been the only writers on it, and we’ll continue to be the only writers on it. I know the rumor was floating around that Drew had taken over writing, and that is a false rumor that hopefully will be put to bed sooner than later — but we’re actively involved with crafting the script with Ryan and working with the director. It is very much as it was on the first one. We are day to day on it, pretty much, and have been for the past year and a half, and will continue to be until the movie is released.
In terms of tone, what are you hoping to get across with the second movie?
Rhett Reese: The tone will be the same. It’ll break rules, in some of the old ways, and some new ways. But it’s going to be the same Deadpool people were entertained with and enjoyed in the first movie. We’re not so crazy as to change that. But, new characters. New story. It’s going to be really fun. We think it’s going to be emotional. We’re so excited about what we have on our hands right now, the 119 pages we have on our hands. And we’re just getting ready to shoot it.
Life opens in theaters this Friday (March 24).