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An astronaut administers a shock to an alien life form in a Petri dish aboard the International Space Station, in a scene from the movie “Life.” Bad idea? (CTMG via YouTube)

A real-life organism provides the inspiration for the alien monster at the center of “Life,” a horror movie that’s set on the International Space Station. But you’d never guess which one.

Would you believe … slime mold?

“We used that as a model, working with the effects team, but ramped it up enormously,” said Adam Rutherford, who served as a science consultant for the film. Moviegoers can get a glimpse at the results in the online trailers for “Life,” which opens in theaters on March 24.

Rutherford didn’t just throw a dart at the tree of life to select slime mold. It’s a weird kind of fungus-like critter that can be considered a one-celled or multicellular organism. Studies have shown that although it doesn’t have a brain, it seems to be capable of learning and even figuring out railway routes.

That’s not a bad model for a fictional organism from Mars that combines neural and muscular functions in one cell. And it’s not a bad pick for Rutherford, a geneticist who also helped out with the AI movie “Ex Machina” and wrote a book titled “Creation” about the origin and future of life.

Adam Rutherford
Adam Rutherford

No one goes to a space horror flick for a science lecture, but the producers of “Life” took pains to throw in some real-life background about astrobiology, the challenges of studying samples from an alien world, and how to deal with a medical emergency on the space station.

“One of the reasons it works so well is because it’s set in the near future,” Rutherford told GeekWire.

China is already gearing up to bring samples back from the moon, as early as this year, and NASA’s 2020 Mars rover is expected to lay the groundwork for an eventual Mars sample return mission.

Scientists are thinking through all the protocols that will be needed to keep Martian samples from getting contaminated by terrestrial life forms, and to keep any potential life forms from getting into earthly environments.

The most likely scenario calls for sending a sealed sample canister directly back to Earth, for study in a specially built containment facility. In contrast, the movie plot is built around the idea that astronauts will study the sample on the space station, supposedly for safety’s sake. Of course, something goes wrong.

In real life, the space station’s crew would stick to “very rigorous protocols to absolutely minimize risk of contamination,” Rutherford said. “But it wouldn’t be much of a space horror thriller,” he added.

 

Medical emergencies in orbit

Dealing with an alien outbreak isn’t exactly on NASA’s list of potential medical emergencies. But the film’s producers did want to stick as close to the space station’s medical procedures as they could. So, they called in Kevin Fong, an expert on space medicine from University College London, to help keep the plot on the right side of plausibility.

Kevin Fong
Kevin Fong (Anthony Cullen Photo)

“They invented some capabilities that don’t exist on the current International Space Station,” Fong told GeekWire. “I was really gobsmacked by just how much effort they put into creating these fictional modules.”

Fong pointed out that the real space station has nothing like the capabilities of a hospital. “The average medical astronaut is not thinking about doing open-heart surgery,” he said.

Crew members can handle minor medical upsets, and they’re trained to deal with the two big emergency scenarios – that is, explosive decompression or fire. But if an astronaut is facing a life-threatening medical condition such as acute appendicitis or a heart attack, “you’d be looking to come home fairly sharpish” on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, Fong said.

The filmmakers turned things up a couple of notches for “Life,” and Fong is happy with the results.

“I can’t speak for the whole film,” he said, “but for the bits that were medical … it was all pretty close to the bone of what reality would be.”

 

What happens when you cry in zero-G?

For the bits that were physical, the filmmakers turned to Rudi Schmidt, an Austrian scientist who has worked on a long string of space missions for the European Space Agency and served as a consultant for “The Martian,” one of moviedom’s most successful hard-sci-fi sagas.

Schmidt advised the actors on how to move in zero gravity, even when they were harnessed in ropes and wires that had to be digitally removed during post-production.

Rudi Schmidt

The result, he told GeekWire, is “probably as realistic as you can get on the ground.”

Schmidt also dealt with questions from filmmakers and actors about life in space. He recalled that Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya – who plays the space station’s commander – asked him what it was like to cry in space.

“It’s different from crying on Earth, because there’s no gravity,” Schmidt explained. “The tears just stick to your eyes. They do not roll down on the cheek. They just stay in the eyes, getting bigger and bigger and bigger. So in the end, the idea of crying [in the movie] was not a really good one.” (Check out Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s video demonstrating the real-life effect.)

As a scientist who’s actually managed a mission to Mars, Schmidt is also well-placed to weigh in on whether samples from the Red Planet would carry anything like the monster that gets loose in “Life.”

Schmidt said that samples of Martian rock and soil could hold evidence for fossilized ancient life, but almost certainly nothing dangerous. “Nobody, including myself, would expect that we’ll bring back a living organism from Mars,” he said.

Just keep telling yourself that after you’ve seen “Life.”

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as an astronaut fighting to save the International Space Station – and life on Earth – from an alien threat in the movie “Life.” (CTMG Photo)
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