Life, or as stylized during the opening credits, L I F E, is about six astronauts aboard the International Space Station for a fictional “Mars Pilgrim Mission” sometime in the very near future. As you can tell from the title, the film is partly about the meaning of life and partly about a violent space creature who wreaks absolute havoc on the ISS. The creature is a new form of life and its MO is destroying human life. Truly, this is a loaded title.
Life (directed by Safe House’s Daniel Espinosa) is also about the human quality of curiosity, which Jake Gyllenhaal (the film’s star) referred to recently in an interview as “the absolutely most important trait in a human being in my humble opinion." Life was marketed with an ensemble cast featuring Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, and Hiroyuki Sanada, but it turns out that Jake Gyllenhaal is inarguably the main character — perhaps the film’s biggest twist. (A reverse Everest, if you will!) Apparently, and without warning, Jake Gyllenhaal has decided to try again at being the world’s biggest movie star. It only took him one entire decade to recover from Prince of Persia.
As the lead, Gyllenhaal gets all of the lines in Life about life. In an early scene, his character Dr. David Jordan watches a tiny baby alien, resembling a sticky hand from a capsule machine, crawl toward the onboard xenobiologist (Ariyon Bakare) and then whispers “its curiosity outweighs its fear...” This sentence is big, as it is a metaphor, one of the film’s major themes, and very corny (slightly less corny than a later scene involving the children’s book Goodnight Moon). But I can relate to the sentiment because of my fear that this whole movie is woefully scientifically inaccurate and my curiosity as to whether that fear is founded. Yes, my curiosity outweighs my fear, and because my opinion of this movie is that it’s very silly in a way that will be fun to pull apart, I’m here today with The Verge’s space reporter Loren Grush to face my curiosity-fear head-on.
All of which is to say: how scientifically sound is this sci-fi movie about a bunch of space scientists?
SPOILER WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR LIFE BELOW
Kaitlyn Tiffany: Loren, I think it’s pretty obvious that I asked you to go see the alien space-death movie Life with me, in midtown Manhattan, on a work night, not because I care about your happiness but because I need you. And first, I need you to tell me if it’s real that the International Space Station has a giant robot arm for catching flying capsules of Mars dirt, which is what is happening when the film Life opens.
Loren Grush: Well! The space station does indeed have a robotic arm. It has multiple robotic arms. That wasn’t my problem with this insane intro scene though. For some reason, the writers are under the impression that astronauts have to go outside in order to operate the robotic arm? I wasn’t exactly clear on how our boy Ryan Reynolds was manipulating this thing from the outdoors. Also there is no way NASA would risk catching a rotating capsule zooming at the space station that fast. But it’s very clear in this universe that the multi-billion dollar investment that is the ISS is expendable to our beloved space agency (more on that later).
THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION
Kaitlyn: The International Space Station in Life looked like the real ISS to me, as someone who has seen somewhere between 10 and 12 photos of the outside of the ISS and a few videos of people pulling Halloween pranks inside it. The toilet was a gross funnel-suction contraption, the beds were slightly more chill Passengers hibernation pods, there were real-time holographic displays of all of the astronauts’ bodies, and no one wore shoes. It all made sense to me, and seeing Jake Gyllenhaal in sock feet was sort of like locking eyes with a good puppy in the park on a sunny day and the puppy’s owner doesn’t even notice or talk to you.
Loren: The strange thing about the design of this ISS is that there were some things that were surprisingly accurate and some things that the producers saw and obviously said “this is not pretty enough for Jake and Ryan!” This happens with basically every NASA-related movie ever, so it doesn’t bother me much anymore. I just love that for Hollywood, reality doesn’t measure up. For one thing, the ISS is a whole lot bigger in Life. Perhaps because in this universe, they’ve invested $200 billion (!) into the station, according to the mission commander in the movie. I really want to live in this universe where NASA has an apparently unlimited budget. Ironically, this week Congress had a hearing about what NASA should do with the ISS because it’s seemingly too expensive; the space agency has only spent $67 billion so far on the station, so I’m really looking forward to the increase of more than $100 billion that Trump decides to take out of the war machines fund.
As for the ISS insides, well, they got the toilet right weirdly? It looks exactly like the one on the ISS. But I hate to break it to you Kaitlyn: astronauts basically sleep in souped-up sleeping bags, not pristine electronic capsules. Also lol if you think NASA has hologram technology like that. However, the good news is that astronauts wear lots of socks.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR BODY IN SPACE
Kaitlyn: Speaking of socks and the people who wear them, there is one ominous stretch of dialogue near the start of Life in which Rebecca Ferguson’s character, Dr. Miranda North, takes one look at Jake Gyllenhaal, who has spent 473 consecutive days in space, and says, “Your atrophy is accelerated and you’re close to your radiation limit.” She seems to think, without caring all that much, that he’s definitely super ill and needs to go back to Earth or he will die. (Jake’s character, for his part, does not like Earth, as he was once in war.) Was Jake dying in the first minutes of the film? What other health problems would he have from this amount of time in space? Is this how it works at NASA? If you don’t speak up about your accelerating atrophy and your radiation limit you just die by accident on the ISS? What’s a radiation limit? I’m so worried for Jake’s health! Loren, please!
Loren: This is another point I’ll give to Life. When you’re in space, your body isn’t moving against gravity. Your muscles and bones aren’t working as hard to do minimal tasks and they risk atrophying and weakening. That’s why you see the astronauts exercising during their little video blog with the humans of Earth. The real astronauts have to exercise up to two and a half hours each day so that their bones and muscles stay strong. I guess maybe Jake has been shirking his duties and cut down on his exercise regimen? Also yes, astronauts are exposed to more radiation than the average human and NASA does have a lifetime limit for how much an astronaut is allowed to be exposed to over his or her career. But uh, if he was about to hit his lifetime limit, he would not be on this mission. Once again, this is a universe where NASA cares very little for its astronauts!
Kaitlyn: Here’s another question about what happens to your body in space, which will sound very dumb to anyone who has not seen the film Life, but there’s nothing I can do about it: can you drown in your astronaut suit?
Loren: Getting water in your spacesuit is indeed a problem, and one astronaut nearly drowned a couple years ago. In 2013, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano was spacewalking outside of the ISS when his helmet started filling with water. At the time NASA thought his drinking bag had leaked, but it turned out that a filter in the suit’s cooling system got clogged. Liquid buildup in a suit has occurred other times before too. Astronaut Chris Hadfield — whom you may remember as the guy who played David Bowie on the ISS — went temporarily blind during a spacewalk when the anti-fog solution used inside his spacesuit got into his eyes.
So yes, in space, an environment that will kill you in one of millions of ways, drowning is also a concern.
Kaitlyn: At the start of the film the alien is a single-celled organism locked in a box, locked in a lab, locked in the corner of the ISS, and Hugh, the biologist on board (Ariyon Bakare) just kind of plays with it and has a nice little friendship with it. He runs experiments on the alien seemingly at random, changing oxygen levels and the temperature in its box until it wakes up, and then watches it grow into a cute little jelly starfish that’s “all muscle, all brain, and all eye.” We know this will go wrong because this is a feature film with the tagline “WE WERE BETTER OFF ALONE,” but even without this knowledge I think I would be a little suspicious about the protocol for Mars alien experimentation on board the ISS. Other than the CDC representative Dr. North who talks a little about quarantine and firewalls (of which there are… three... between a dangerous alien and all of mankind), no one on board seems to have any inkling of the rules, nor much of an urge to talk to NASA back on Earth.
Loren, please tell me what the hell gives. What were these handsome dummies doing, and should I be afraid?
Loren: So essentially what this movie is illustrating is a totally botched Mars sample return. It’s exactly like it sounds: bringing back a sample from Mars so we can study it in the lab. Mars sample return is one of the most anticipated types of missions in the science community, because if there is life on Mars, we’ll have a much easier time finding it in our labs here on Earth than with remotely operated robots that are tens of millions of miles away.
But as Life illustrates, finding aliens may go bad for us! That’s why NASA has a whole office dedicated to preventing biological contamination throughout the Solar System. It’s a concept called planetary protection, and it’s focused on stopping the spread of Earth microbes on other worlds, as well as preventing the spread of alien microbes here on Earth. When I spoke with NASA’s planetary protection officer, Catherine Conley, last year, she said part of the motivation was for our protection: “Understand the environment well enough so you don’t encounter bad surprises.”
NASA’s planetary protection office has an entire list of recommendations and protocols for scientists to follow if we ever do figure out how to get a small sample off of Mars. The first of which: “Samples returned from Mars by spacecraft should be contained and treated as though potentially hazardous until proven otherwise.” I feel like playing with the alien isn’t exactly treating it like a hazardous material? Also it says NASA should be “erring on the side of caution,” but I don’t think that happened here, especially since one of the attempts to kill the alien was to torch it with a flame thrower! Just a quick note: you really don’t want to create lots of flames in an enclosed space like the station.
Kaitlyn: By the time the cute jellyfish had grown into a jelly version of the lizards from Holes and then into a jelly version of Drogon I think it was pretty clear that everyone on board the ISS had fucked up. Also, they insisted on calling it “Calvin,” like it was the friendly ISS cat, for the entirety of the film! I don’t want to get into the horrors committed by Calvin because I want to leave some nauseating surprises for the people, but I do want to say that I found it pretty easy to identify with the stupid astronauts, as I, too, made a crucial mistake: bringing gummy octopuses as my movie snack.
Loren: See I felt like Calvin resembled more of the overgrown venus fly trap from Little Shop of Horrors. Another example of planetary protection failure, I might add. Now Kaitlyn, you’ve been asking me all these questions of science, but I have a question for you as our resident Jake Gyllenhaal expert. Why is Jake in this film, and is he convincing as an astronaut?
Kaitlyn: Loren, good question, and thank you for acting as if I have something real to contribute to this science conversation. Jake Gyllenhaal is a noted weirdo, who starred as Seymour in a lauded two-day production of Little Shop of Horrors at City Center in 2015, and has a documented interest in the cosmos dating back to his breakthrough starring role in the 1999 rocket science movie October Sky. Later in life he told Esquire UK that he believes our bodies are controlled by the Moon, a celestial body of which he is a big fan. He is convincing as an astronaut because he is the most talented actor of his generation, thank you.
[BIG SPOILER AHEAD INVOLVING A CHILDREN’S BOOK]
Loren: Oy okay, I can’t take a turn and explain to Jake why our bodies aren’t controlled by the Moon. But on a related note, Jake loves to say the word “moon.” There is an entire scene in which Jake reads the book Goodnight, Moon as he and his last remaining crewmate wait for the ISS to fall into Earth’s atmosphere. Yes, you read that correctly. Movie producers really love destroying the ISS for some reason.
Anyway, let’s break this all down. The reason that the orbit of the ISS is decaying is because NASA and Russia decided to send an uncrewed Soyuz capsule to the station — to PUSH IT INTO DEEP SPACE. The idea is that there’s no way Calvin is coming to Earth, so we’re going to kill everyone on board the station instead. Again, another reminder that this NASA hates its astronauts and will destroy them without letting them know first. Also: that’s not how orbital mechanics work! You can’t just push something as huge as the ISS out of orbit with something as small as the Soyuz capsule. It doesn’t have nearly enough propellant needed to push the ISS out into deep space. Someone is seriously underestimating Earth’s gravity as well.
Anyway, something goes wrong with the Soyuz push plan, and the ISS somehow gets into a decaying orbit, meaning it’s going to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere instead of head out into deep space. It’s hard to keep up here.
Kaitlyn: Personally I thought Jake’s reading of Goodnight Moon was touching, particularly because when he got to the very weird part of that book which goes “goodnight air,” he suddenly had an idea. Air! Air!
This is when Jake decides to lure Calvin into an “escape pod” with him using an “oxygen candle,” because oxygen is like crack for Calvin, he loves it so much. He hates everyone alive, but he absolutely loves oxygen, and literally hugs the device producing it. (Are oxygen candles a real thing?) In the escape pod, handsome Jake plans to override the Earth-bound autopilot and shoot himself into deep space. Everyone in this movie talks so much about flinging their problems out into deep space as if this is a luxury we all have. Loren, is this a luxury anyone has?
Loren: This was just the icing on the shitty space cake. First of all, yes there are such things as solid-oxygen generators on the station, which ignite an oxygen-rich compound in a canister, according to NASA. But they definitely don’t light up like glowsticks, and you can’t hold them. Also, there aren’t escape pods on the ISS. What the ISS should have, though, are the capsules that the astronauts came up in! Those don’t just go away. Like that crazy rogue Soyuz capsule, there should be at least two other Soyuz capsules up there for situations just like these! And they have room for three people, not just one.
This was clearly an oversight made so that the two remaining astronauts had to go in separate capsules so that we could end with a bonkers conclusion.
Kaitlyn: Maybe Calvin ate the other Soyuz capsules, because honestly, that guy never stops eating.
Dr. North said in the first 10 minutes of this movie, “Let’s all agree this is our first and last mistake,” and boy oh boy, if they had really all agreed on that, it would have been a very different film. Now that I’ve talked it through with Loren, I’m confident saying that what I gleaned from Life is not that humans are too curious, or that alien life is to be feared in all contexts. It is that NASA should be careful not to hire people who are so bizarrely eager to chuck a $200 billion space station off into the hinterlands of the universe, and that perhaps the real monster is not a Martian or science or the unknown, but more simply, an idiot. Any idiot.