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'Life' a chilling science fiction labor that's a 'human story' at its core

Jake Gyllenhaal as astronaut David Jordan in a scene from ‘Life'.
Source: Sony/Columbia Pictures
Jake Gyllenhaal as astronaut David Jordan in a scene from ‘Life'.

In real life, the future of the International Space Station was debated just this week in Congress. NASA is gradually transitioning away from shouldering the project's annual budget of more than $3 billion, to a new role of helping to facilitate commercial space travel.

On the screen, however, the ISS has become the scene of a frightening new life form—and Hollywood's latest example of giving a movie meticulous treatment that's worthy of the best scientific minds on the planet.

"Life," which opened on Friday and stars A-list actors Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, centers on the groundbreaking discovery that's long been the holy grail of space geeks everywhere—evidence of biological life on Mars. As is often the case with aliens on the big screen, the crew's elation over the microscopic organism quickly devolves into fear and a struggle for survival.

If all that sounds familiar...it is: The formula's been tried before in countless sci-fi/horror forerunners. Yet this time around, much of "Life's" plot revolves around science, making it part of a wave of recent Hollywood productions like "The Martian," "Arrival," and "Passengers" that don't rely as heavily on the traditional extravaganza of big-budget special effects.

Both chilling and cerebral, "Life" has its fair share of CGI-enhanced moments. Yet the narrative is infused with hefty doses of humanity—even as it lovingly embraces science in ways a microbiologist or astrophysicist can fully appreciate—and still grounded enough for non-scientific lay people.

"We delve into the human story and, setting aside the alien coming to life [explore] how do humans react and interact amongst themselves that happens within their walls." -Paul Wernick, co-writer, "Life"

At a time when "the search for life in space is pretty feverish…I think this is something that doesn't take a huge leap of imagination," screenwriter Rhett Reese told CNBC recently.
Rather than in a galaxy far, far away—or hundreds of years in the future—the narrative for "Life" is set in the present day, which Reese explained was a deliberate attempt to connect the plot to the modern-day push to explore the galaxy, and eventually touch down on the Red Planet itself.

The question of finding extraterrestrials, if they even exist, is "pretty amoral…it can lead to great things and terrifying things," Reese added. "In general, the quest for knowledge is a good one, and even [physicist] Steven Hawking talked about if we contact an alien being, is that a good thing?"

Bets on a journey to Mars are increasing, as wealthy entrepreneurs chart a path to the Red Planet. The ambition is being fueled in part by commercial considerations of space travel, but also by scientific curiosity that some scientists argue could help ensure the eventual survival of humanity itself.

"We can be smarter than [an alien], and be hostile to it and use it for nefarious ends," Reese said, suggesting that "Life" illustrates the dangers associated with a human race that's obsessively focused on finding life outside of Earth—and whether its really prepared to have that wish granted.

A 'very human story'

'Life’ writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, pictured at SXSW on Saturday, March 18.
Eric Charbonneau | Invision for Sony Pictures
'Life’ writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, pictured at SXSW on Saturday, March 18.

Reese and his writing partner Paul Wernick also penned "Deadpool," one of 2016's sleeper hits. In "Life", the duo create a movie that's equal parts "Alien", "Predator" and "2001: A Space Odyssey," in keeping with what the writers explained to CNBC was an effort to imbue "Life's" plot with a "science fact" ethos.

Indeed, the film's writers and producers consulted with a battalion of scientists and medical doctors to replicate the zero-gravity nothingness of space, while remaining true to the thrills of a horror movie—one that's complete with a 'just-when-you-think-it's-over-it's-not' ending.

Reynolds and Gyllenhaal notwithstanding, the real star of the movie is "Calvin", the Martian lab specimen that rapidly evolves into a sentient predator—with devastating effects for the six member ISS's crew.

"This movie has a very human story," Wernick told CNBC. The movie explores how "a terrifying creature come to life, and how do humans deal with that…while stuck in a claustrophobic, haunted house kind of environment."

In some regards, the movie's central motif makes it more terrifying for audiences—namely that it takes place so close to Earth (and within modern times), rather than in a faraway planet or future. Wernick and Reese said that is likely to be a big part of the movie's appeal.

"We delve into the human story and, setting aside the alien coming to life [explore] how do humans react and interact amongst themselves that happens within their walls," Wernick added.