The first official trailer for the upcoming sci-fi thriller Life is out — and while it certainly sets up an intriguing story rife with mystery and suspense, the few seconds allotted to illustrating what extraterrestrial life might actually look like takes just the tiniest of steps towards scientific feasibility. What viewers see in Life is a better, more probable interpretation of what extraterrestrial organisms might look like than most sci-fi works — yet one that still falls way short of what most of the astrobiology community is really looking for.
You can watch the entire two-minute twenty-second trailer yourself on YouTube, but the most important part comes in around the 35-second mark, when Ariyon Bakare’s character says, “The mission’s primary goal has been achieved. We’re looking at a large single cell. Biological.”
The organism, sitting in a petri dish under a laboratory hood that’s sealed off from the rest of the space station, is as white a snowflake, and seems to characteristic of a plant seedling that that’s sprouted, or a strange fungus that’s developing a bulbous head.
“We’re looking at the first proof of life beyond Earth,” Bakare’s character says.
There’s nothing too strange about that — extraterrestrial researchers are pretty sure that if we ever stumble on alien life on another planet, it’ll be something small and primitive. Although it’s better to bet it will be unicellular, it’s entirely possible those lifeforms could be most complex than that. A small organism stretching barely an inch off the ground is definitely more probable than little green men with heads too big for their frames.
Still, the organism in the trailer is distinct from the plant and fungal species were used to observing here on Earth. It begins to move quickly, swaying back and forth like seaweed in the water — even though it’s sitting in a quarantined enclosure (its unclear what kind of atmosphere is sitting in the laboratory hood, and how active the air is).
Not two seconds later, the trailer’s scene accelerates to the action — Bakare suddenly yells out in pain. It’s clear the organism is not the benign little thing the astronauts on board the station first assumed it was. It’s active — and predatory.
This is where whatever scientific conceit the movie attempted to maintain gets thrown out the airlock. Would an extraterrestrial organism really be so hostile and predatory to curious humans?
Probably not — and it goes back to how rare the evolution of life is. If there’s another planet that does host some kind of endemic lifeforms, it’s probably one of a very limited community of species that reside on the planet. This wouldn’t be a Thunderdome-style fight for survival between different organisms — the environment itself would be the most limiting factor to life. And therefore, it’s highly unlikely you’d find an extraterrestrial species to possess strong predatory features.
The snowflake-like alien in Life would likely be just as benign as a snowflake.
It remains to be seen what to what extent Life stretches out from scientific fact and flexes its creative muscles, but so far, we’re probably going to expect something that hews closer to illustrating space like the universe of Alien rather than The Martian. Both great movies, but only one of which has a foot in scientific accuracy.