Life director Daniel Espinosa on his film's philosophy and comparisons to Alien and Arrival

Contributed by
Mar 24, 2017

Director Daniel Espinosa has been thinking a lot about the nature of humanity and our tendency to react badly when we encounter something new. So when you see his new sci-fi horror movie Life, opening today and starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, keep in mind the killer alien isn't the monster in his eyes.

Sure, the alien discovered in Mars core samples and brought to life aboard the International Space Station (named 'Calvin' by a bunch of earthbound school kids) is a nasty piece of work. But Espinosa (Safe House, Child 44) pointed out in my interview with him that Calvin only breaks bad as a reaction to human behavior.

As such, Espinosa said his new trapped-in-space flick, based on a script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool), is a rollercoaster ride, but one with philosophical underpinnings. And in the conversation that follows, we discuss that philosophy as well as the clear comparisons between Life and Alien. I likewise chat with Espinosa about Carl Sagan, and Arrival, an extraterrestrial encounter movie with nicer life forms.

We have seen this type of movie before where humans encounter a new life form, bring it aboard and things go bad. So what was the appeal in making your own entry in this subgenre?

Daniel Espinosa: I thought it was interesting to take a hold of a new kind of science fiction. Alien was many years in the future, in a dystopian neo-punk era. Science fiction should be a keyhole into our future, regarded through science. Today, our perspective … I don't think we have a clue how anything will look 200 years down the line. The future for us is tomorrow. This movie takes place tomorrow, and it could be our reality in a future that is much closer.

So is this life form, Calvin, a monster in your eyes?

It is up to each person’s interpretation. For me, Calvin is like a baby. They feed him, take care of him, and he's nice to them, too. Once they start to interfere with him, he builds up a reaction system. He's trying to comprehend how his life works, like a child. If you electrocute him, he strikes back. Everything is something we humans construct around him, and that's why he reacts.

Did you consider the alternate timeline where Calvin didn't become this lethal force?

Yes. That's how you work as a storyteller. You have to take on the perspective. A lot of inspiration from Calvin came from me having my own daughter, and my fear that my issues as a human being – the parts of me I'm not as proud of – would pour into my child. With Calvin, when he gets electrocuted, he tries to escape. He meets a rat, the rat bites him, and he strikes back. In many ways, he is a reactive being that slowly grows his consciousness. Once it is clear enough, he has to come to the conclusion that his life is threatened, and he must survive. That is the fundamental instinct of any being.

If he is not a monster, does that make the scientists who discover and nurture him the good guys?

I think they are reacting in the same ways we humans have reacted to new frontiers, the unknown, new beings. As we have throughout the history of mankind. I was very inspired by this book Sapiens [by Yuval Noah Harari] that said a lot about how humans behave by things we don't know much about. It describes how Homo sapiens arrived and eradicated all the other Homo species. There is no other animal that eradicates other species …

But if you'll notice, without giving too much away, there are some characters in the movie who never become antagonistic towards Calvin. Those characters fare differently than the others.

The human characters are a group of likable scientists. They have mutual respect for one another, and there isn't this militaristic villain out to weaponize alien life …

Yes, yes. I thought it was interesting these characters always act upon good will, and good faith. They make quite good decisions that just happen to not be good enough. Often it is the case – and is the case in Alien – you have a militarized conspiracy theory. But we have human beings trying to do the best they could. But, as Carl Sagan said, the problem with meeting extraterrestrial life is not what it would want to do with us, but how we'll react to that life. If you look at the history of mankind, we don't have a great past in encountering new realms.

Since you bring up Sagan, do you prefer the Sagan philosophy that extraterrestrial life will be advanced and peaceful. Or do you prefer Stephen Hawking's thought that alien life forms may treat us like we treat new life when we encounter it: as something to be dominated?

Well, again, Calvin's reaction system is something we created. He is mainly mirroring what humans do to him. But I believe if we encountered an extraterrestrial life form, the probability it would be hostile is quite small. If space is endless, then the possibilities of species created throughout time is endless. The question is not if they exist, but why they haven't contacted us. Probably because they see us as mold slowly eating away our planet. That's what we are: We are mold.

Which character are you personally closest to in this film?

I think Jake's character is someone I am very close to. I understand his skepticism towards Earth, and understand why he doesn't see much hope.

Life is released only months after Arrival, a very different kind of alien encounter movie …

Arrival is a great, beautiful, cinematic essay about philosophy. Mine is a rollercoaster with some underpinnings of philosophy. That's a big difference. When it comes to the creature, we're meeting them in Arrival on their terms. In my movie, we raise one of them, and then he becomes what we raise.

Well, do you hope, with Arrival, Life will become part of a conversation about humans, and how we may react to alien life forms?

When people see my movie, they're going to see a rollercoaster, a ride. I hope they'll be terrified. I am more looking forward to the conversation 15 years down the line. If you make a rollercoaster movie, the debate rarely exists until a couple years down the line. But a couple years down the line, if people are willing to do that, it's there. That is what I would enjoy.