Columbia Pictures and Skydance Media

SXSW 2017

Life is a terrifying sci-fi thriller about a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station whose mission of discovery turns to one of primal fear when they find a rapidly evolving life form that could have caused extinction on Mars, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth. 

  • Jake Gyllenhaal
    David Jordan
  • Rebecca Ferguson
    Miranda North
  • Ryan Reynolds
    Rory Adams
  • Hiroyuki Sanada
    Sho Murakami
  • Olga Dykhovichnaya
    Ekaterina Golovkina
  • Ariyon Bakare
    Hugh Derry
  • Director
    Daniel Espinosa
  • Producers
    David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Bonnie Curtis, and Julie Lynn
  • Written by
    Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
  • Executive Producers
    Don Granger and Vicki Dee Rock
  • Director of Photography
    Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC
  • Production Designer
    Nigel Phelps
  • Edited by
    Frances Parker and Mary Jo Markey, ACE
  • Costume Designer
    Jenny Beavan
  • Music by
    Jon Ekstrand
Claustrophobia, paranoia, loneliness, fear of a hostile takeover by anyone or anything. Whatever your anxiety, Daniel Espinosa’s polished space thriller Life is designed to tease it out. […]
Espinosa shuffles and recombines familiar elements, more often stoking slow-burning terror than goosing us with jump scares. (Although he does toss in a few of those.) Part of what makes Life so unsettling is how eerily calming much of it is. […] But when Life jolts awake, the tension is almost unbearable, right up to the brooding, cautionary ending. This is an effective and unsettling piece of filmmaking, partly because Gyllenhaal has one of the most sympathetic faces in movies today–it’s haunted and haunting.
Any reasonable creature feature worth its bones should have, on balance, about half a dozen scenes where a character makes a patently illogical decision. […] If the film is scary and chaotic enough, every bad choice will act as a link in a chain, building to a satisfying crescendo of mayhem that the audience has secretly been rooting for all along. Life isn’t perfect … but it does exactly that. […] All in all, Life is exactly what you’d expect—a bit of nasty, energetic horror that ends on a darkly satisfying note—but that’s an increasingly rare quality for a big-budget studio film these days.
[I]t is undeniably satisfying to be in the hands of a persuasive director who, along with editors Frances Parker and Mary Jo Markey, knows how to slowly ratchet up the tension to a properly unnerving level.
- Los Angeles Times
There’s enough action, suspense and deadly peril to make this adventure in high orbit a satisfying journey. […] It’s a harrowing high-wire adventure with an unexpected but satisfying conclusion. 
- The Star 
Its premise may be familiar but there is plenty of energy and ingenuity in the way the filmmakers tackle their material. Espinosa realises that the most spectacular special effects will mean nothing unless the film has the human factor – and the audience feels a strong connection with the characters. The most disturbing shots here are the close-ups of the crew members’ faces as they realise the predicament they’ve landed in.
Even at the grimmest moments, Espinosa looks for the visual poetry. This can be very macabre. If someone is vomiting blood, he’ll show slow motion footage of little red beads floating in the air. There’s a certain grotesque lyricism, too, to the scenes in which the creature slithers its way down characters’ throats or curls around them in a python-like embrace. In the universe the director conjures up here, everything becomes threatening. 


The approach to Life was to make a terrifying thriller that feels like it could be in today’s headlines.  “This script had such a degree of reality and a feeling of constant tension,” says Ryan Reynolds, who stars alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson.  The film reunites Reynolds with his Deadpool writers Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick and his Safe House director Daniel Espinosa.  “It begins with an air of discovery that turns to a tension that permeates the whole film as we learn more and more about this thing that we’ve put on board the ISS.” 

Life is an original production that originated at Skydance, where it was overseen by David Ellison and Dana Goldberg, who developed and packaged the film.  Skydance then brought in Sony Pictures as the film’s production and distribution partner.

Director Daniel Espinosa says that before he was approached to direct Life, he had given some thought to the ways his filmmaking heroes approached science fiction. “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 says.  “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.”

After reading the script for Life, Espinosa saw a way to draw on the work of those icons and yet make a film that would bear his own personal stamp.  “This script felt more like a realistic science fiction – maybe science reality,” he says, noting that scientists have discovered proof of water on Mars, thousands of exoplanets revolving around other stars, and even waking 50,000-year-old microbes that have been hibernating inside crystals. 

That gives the movie a sense of urgency, says producer and Skydance CEO David Ellison.  "One of the things that was very important early on from the genesis of this project was that you could feel like you could turn on the news and hear that this happened today,” he says.

“We're not making a film that takes place a hundred years from now,” adds producer Dana Goldberg.  “We very much wanted to make a film that felt more like science fact than science fiction."

“Finding life on other planets is obviously extremely exciting, and I think we could be very close to that,” says Paul Wernick, who co-writes the film with his partner, Rhett Reese.  “I think that grounds the movie.”

It’s an idea that was with the film from its genesis. “Dana and I had an idea around the time period when Mars Curiosity had touched down,” says Ellison. “What if the Curiosity discovered single cell organism life on Mars and brought it back to the ISS for analysis.  Then, once it was introduced into an environment that was conducive to life, it started to grow… and what if, in the way that humanity does all of the time, with the best of intentions, it was probed, which turned it hostile.  This would fundamentally turn the movie into an incredibly tense, sci-fi horror movie set on the ISS, all at zero gravity."

“We are going to Mars to try to find other life forms.  So what happens when we actually find it?  What happens when we communicate or relate to it?” asks producer Bonnie Curtis.

“Occasionally, we as people tend to take beautiful, brilliant things and try to shape them to our will,” says Goldberg.  “But this life form feels threatened and decides it wants to survive.  The tables get turned.  Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.”

As Life would be differentiated by its commitment to a “science real” approach, the filmmakers took special effort to get it right.  “What I like about this movie is that it’s in the realm of the possible,” says producer Julie Lynn.  “We did a lot of work to keep it in the realm of the possible.  Talking to biologists, exobiologists, and geneticist Dr. Adam Rutherford… 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.”

“The production design on this movie is a love letter to the International Space Station,” says Ellison.  “Everything is grounded and real.”

And from that real starting point, the filmmakers’ terrifying imaginations took hold.  “I think what’s scary about discovering extraterrestrial life is just that we don’t know if its intentions will be friendly or hostile, whether its intelligence will be high or low, whether it will exploit us or be exploited by us,” says Reese. “I think that’s a real fear – Stephen Hawking pointed out that extraterrestrial life may not be friendly or have the most pleasant designs on humanity.”

Reese and Wernick came up with an idea for a completely original alien creature.  “We had a vision for this alien whereby it began as a single-celled organism and then that cell divided many, many times, until it became a multi-cellular, complex organism that was able to navigate its environment,” says Reese.  “It’s not a higher intelligence – it’s a combination of cells that are not differentiated.  A human body has differentiated cells – muscle cells, nerve cells, blood cells, and all of these cells perform different functions.  In this particular alien, every cell performs every bodily function on its own. Every cell is an eye cell, a muscle cell, a nerve cell, and as such, the creature is very, very adaptable.”

“It’s our worst nightmare, and the crew’s worst nightmare,” says Wernick.

“Rhett and Paul wrote a very scary, well-paced thriller, but it’s really fed by their investment in the characters,” says Lynn.  “These six astronauts are smart, industrious, tenacious, hardworking – and when things get hairy we care about what’s going to happen to them.”

The filmmakers could not ask for a more terrifying location to unleash this exploration of the unknown than the cramped, zero-gravity, inhospitable climate of the International Space Station.  “The International Space Station is one of the last fundamental idealistic acts that humanity has been able to put together over the past fifty years,” adds Espinosa.  “It’s one of the cores of humanity: exploration, the discovery of the unknown.  The movie is an homage and a tribute to that courage of meeting the unknown without fear.  But at the same time, it has an undercurrent of mankind’s history – we don’t have a great history in how we handle the unknown.  So the question is maybe not what does the unknown do to us, but what do we do to the unknown.  If we treat the unknown harshly, don’t you think the unknown will treat us harshly back?  If we treat the unknown with fear, don’t you think the unknown will respond to that fear?”

“I think Daniel Espinosa wanted to create a world that was suffocating, in a way,” says Jake Gyllenhaal, who stars as David Jordan.  “In other movies, you can separate yourself from the reality of what you’re seeing.  Daniel wanted to create an environment where everything was truly alive.  Not only feeling that from the creature itself, but also truly alive emotionally.”

Gyllenhaal’s character, David Jordan, has the distance and remove of a man who has spent over 473 days on the International Space Station.  No one knows this home better than he does.  The new crew members joining him are there using his home in space as a base for their mission: to discover the first proof of life on Mars.

Gyllenhaal was intrigued not only by the script’s scares, but the larger ideas behind the characters.  “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 says.  “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.”

While Gyllenhaal was attracted to the project for the script and story itself, he also saw a way to honor a family legacy with his role.  “My grandfather was a doctor, and Daniel and I talked about the similarities in my character to my grandfather,” he says. “It’s a bit of an homage to him.”

Rebecca Ferguson plays Miranda North, on loan to the mission from the Centers for Disease Control.  By the book and focused on her work, she is there to keep everyone on the crew and back home on Earth healthy - no matter what they encounter in space.

“Miranda is a microbiologist sent up to protect everyone on Earth from whatever this is that we find,” Ferguson explains.  A rigorous scientist, she has set up multiple firewalls to protect themselves and Earth from possible 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.”

Ferguson says that each of the characters responds to the moment of discovery – and the threat it represents.  “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 says.

“Some of us are a little more excited than others.  Some are incredibly aggressive, others more conservative.  And these ideas are mixed together – but like a lot of human actions, we push things a little farther than we should,” explains Ryan Reynolds, who plays mission specialist Rory Adams.

Adams is the spacewalk specialist, and he'll tell you just how cool that is.  (It's f-in cool.)  Just charming enough to keep from being called cocky, and way more handsome than he needs to be, Adams is the rock star of the mission.

“A mission specialist is a fancy way of saying he’s a mechanic who understands how the ship works, how to fix anything that breaks,” says Reynolds.  “He’s also the guy that specializes in the spacewalk and he operates the Canadarm, a system that they use to capture the Mars capsule that is hurdling through space.”

Ariyon Bakare plays Hugh Derry, the British scientist in charge of analyzing the alien creature.  This moment is the culmination of his life – not just his career, but every dream he's had since he was ten years old.

“He’s a paraplegic – he lost the use of his legs when he was ten years old,” Bakare explains.  “The creature represents the beginning of our findings – there are so many things you could find out just by finding this specimen. We have no idea what it could mean for life on Earth, and Derry has a special connection with it in that way.”

To play a paraplegic in zero gravity required a bit more harness work from Bakare than from the other actors.  “All of the other characters have one harness, but I had three: a body harness, a swivel, and a jerk vest, which was like a straightjacket,” he says.  “Derry can’t move his legs, so in one particular scene – when his hand gets crushed – his legs have got to be wild and ferocious.”

Bakare admits that the script scared his pants off before he even joined the project.  “I was reading the script, got to one page and I literally screamed,” he says.  “I was just shocked by how it guides the characters into this false sense of security.  You think that everything’s going to be all right, and then it twists into something else.”

Sho Murakami, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, is the flight engineer and elder statesman on board.  His anxiety is higher than anyone else on board, but not because of the dangers of space – after years of trying, he is about to become a father, with his expectant wife much too far away.  Of course, when the creature begins to wreak havoc, that anxiety becomes something else.  “He starts to lose his mind, little by little – he panics,” says Sanada.

The mission is under the command of Russian cosmonaut Ekaterina Golovkina, played by Olga Dihovichnaya.  Fiercely loyal, brave, and demonstrating the cool head of a leader, the safety of her crew is her top priority.

“My character demonstrates a common human fear of the new and unknown,” she says.  “One side of her is in control and in charge – the commander – but there is also a side that has this fear and she often reacts defensively.”