Crafting a screenplay about unfriendly extraterrestrial life with unpleasant designs on humanity

A terrifying thriller that feels like it could be in today’s headlines.

 Following the cult-hits Zombieland and Deadpool, screenwriting-partners Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick turn science-fiction into science-fact with Life, 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.

Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick (Written by) have been partners since 2001. Their first feature collaboration was Zombieland, which they wrote and executive-produced for Columbia Pictures in 2009 and became one of Hollywood’s highest grossing zombie movies ($100M+). They wrote and executive-produced Twentieth Century Fox’s 2016 superhero action-comedy Deadpool, which became the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time ($782M+). The two also wrote Paramount Pictures’ G.I. Joe: Retaliation, that went on to gross nearly $400M worldwide.


Astronauts (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds) aboard the International Space Station are on the cutting edge of one of the most important discoveries in human history: the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. As members of the crew conduct their research, the rapidly evolving life-form proves far more intelligent and terrifying than anyone could have imagined.


Real Fear

“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.”

“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.”

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.

The approach to Life was to make a terrifying thriller that feels like it could be in today’s headlines.

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.”

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.”


Daniel Espinosa is a filmmaker whose edgy, visceral approach to his work brings his films to life in a way that captivates audiences and takes them on a journey into his characters’ aesthetically chaotic world. Born in Chile, raised in Africa, and educated in Sweden, Espinosa’s international upbringing has given him an unaffected approach to his filmmaking, providing both him and his actors with a raw, kinetic energy that brings their stories to life. Espinosa graduated from the director’s program at the National Film School of Denmark in 2003, with his acclaimed and award-winning student final film, the dramatic short The Fighter.

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.”

“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.”

“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?”

life (1)

“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.”

‘Life represented a journey of discovery as the filmmakers – Espinosa, the screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, and producers David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Bonnie Curtis, and Julie Lynn – consulted with astrobiologists, space medicine experts, and other scientists not only to create the realistic, zero-G world of the ISS that we all familiar with, but also to create a new life form that was wholly unique and original to film, but drew on very real biological principles that would inspire a terrifying creature.

In their research, they turned to two technical advisors: Dr. Kevin Fong and Dr. Adam Rutherford.

“Space is an extreme environment, like any of the extreme environments we’ve attempted to conquer in the 20th century – deserts, polar ice caps, our highest mountains,” says Fong, whose training as an astrophysicist and as a medical doctor made him uniquely suited to work with NASA’s Human Adaptation and Countermeasures Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston.  As an expert in space medicine – how to keep astronauts healthy and alive in space – both David Jordan and Miranda North would have training like Fong’s.  “What we know about extreme environments is that you can’t go there for long and it’s not without penalty – you come back literally less than the person you were.”

“As a doctor, when you’re looking at protecting human life in this environment, you’re really aware of how fragile it is.  When you add an extra threat by way of something alien, the questions become even harder,” Fong continues.  “It’s hard enough to stay alive up there on a routine mission when everything goes right.  When things start to go wrong, people start to die off pretty quickly.”

Hugh Derry would have training closer to that of Dr. Rutherford, a British geneticist who has published influential books on the creation of life and the use of genetic modification to make new life forms. “When you’re dealing with unknown agencies or unknown organisms, possibly dangerous, possibly infectious, there’s a number of protocols in place to stop any potential threat,” says Rutherford, describing Derry’s lab.  “You know these are rigorously enforced with smallpox and Ebola – there are tight regulations which are all managed by major organizations like the CDC.  In this case, it’s contained in an incubator, which is contained in a sealed lab, which is on the ISS in low-Earth orbit.  This seems like a sensible protocol at the time…”

LIFE“I worked with Ariyon a lot before we started filming,” Rutherford continues. “He wanted to understand the mindset of a scientist.  Finding proof of extraterrestrial life is the most important discovery in the history of science, but as a scientist, you’ve got to figure out what the hell it is and what you’re going to test, so you can explain what this thing is.”

Fong’s expertise came in helping the filmmakers understand how real astronauts might respond to the threat on board the ISS.  “I spent days watching the film scenes and thinking, ‘If you were the doctor on that mission, what would be happening?” says Fong. “These are scenarios I’ve played out in my head in theory, but when you see it played out with this high fidelity… it was fantastic.”

One of Fong’s suggestions comes as Jordan has to get outside the ISS very quickly.  However, the proper EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) suits take quite a long time to put on properly.  “We had to rethink that, think about the sort of spacesuit we’d use,” Fong recalls.  “We decided to use the launch suit, which isn’t quite up for the purpose of going on a spacewalk, which adds another edge to the threat of that scene.”

Fong and Rutherford say that while the discovery of life on Mars is definitely science fiction for now, the idea might not be all that far-fetched. “Mars is an object of fascination, because about four billion years ago, conditions on Mars were very similar to the conditions on Earth at that same time,” says Fong.  “The big question is whether life happened on Mars.  It had the conditions that would have allowed life to arise.”

The Mars of today is another story. “We don’t think that a life form would survive on the surface of Mars.  The atmosphere is too thin and it would be sterilized by ultraviolet radiation,” Rutherford notes.  Still, there could be ways that life could have survived for millennia, and Rutherford was able to suggest one possibility: “The idea was that the alien has been in hibernation, protected from the radiation beneath the surface of the planet.”