SPOILERS AHEAD! In the following interview I discuss the ending of Life, the Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds-starring movie that opened last week.
Two escape pods launching away from the International Space Station. In one, David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), the planet-weary medical officer who would rather lure the lethal alien Calvin into deep space, rather than return to Earth. In the other, Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), the quarantine officer heading home with a message of life on Mars and the destruction Calvin has wreaked.
Miranda’s pod hits debris from the ISS as Calvin tries to take control in David's, and with a series of suspenseful shots, the audience no longer knows which pod is which – until, of course, one lands in Vietnamese waters. Two well-meaning fisherman try to open up the pod to find not Miranda but David surrounded by an even larger, more evolved Calvin. Other boats slowly move toward the pod as we hear screams from David not to open it. Then? Fade to black.
The twist ending of Life is the capper to a film that begins with bumping off Ryan Reynolds and a lot of uncertainty about who in the fleshed-out cast of characters will survive or perish in the encounter with the Martian life form.
I spoke with Life director Daniel Espinosa about this ending and his attempt to toy with audience expectations. While hoping to evoke "the tragedy of our own ambitions" and channel film noir from the 1940s and '50s, he also speaks to the finality of his ending – meaning no sequel from his perspective – and why Earth may not be doomed by Calvin after all.
How was having this balanced cast, and toying with who is the lead character, part of the strategy that sells the twist at the end?
Daniel Espinosa: That's what was fun with it. I remember when the trailers came out, a lot of people said it was so typical they kill the black guy first. I enjoyed that, because I knew that would change as soon as they saw the picture. I wanted people to be on edge. I love what Hitchcock did with Janet Leigh in Psycho – that twist, and who you can expect to fall first.
Talk about playing with expectations at the end of the film, where the audience is led to believe that Jake Gyllenhaal's character David has the alien Calvin in his lifeboat and is careening into space. You toy with that expectation, and instead his is the one that returns to Earth – with the alien.
Jake's character is the only one that never has a violent reaction against Calvin. And it takes quite a long time before he lands. And he is still alive. Something has happened in that pod. Calvin is just looking for communication.
What do you want audiences to feel by that ending?
On one side, I want them to feel the same thing they did when they watched those movies from the great era of film noir – that you're witnessing an image of the tragedy of our own ambitions. That we cannot control fate. On the other hand, there is this idea that Calvin finally managed to communicate. Therefore, he never killed Gyllenhaal. He never saw him as a threat. He is the person that had some connection with this creature.
So Calvin has evolved more in this pod, and the take-away is Earth is not automatically doomed?
Yes, yes, yes. That's why I don't see this as a set-up to a sequel. I see this as its own ending. The tragedy with sequels that come out are not the sequels themselves – there are many great sequels in cinema history – but that the audience has stopped contemplating about endings that are not complete and final. If you had an ending like this 30 years ago, people would contemplate about the ending, and what it meant. Now people want a resolution, and think of course it is an ending that leads to a sequel where Calvin attacks the rest of humanity. They're wrong.
When you come into the realm of the sequel, everything has changed. Regarding movies that way kind of limits us to make final products, and we're making semi-TV shows.
This is definitely is not a set-up to a sequel?
Not for me! But I can't speak for the producers [laughs].