In “Life”, a stark reminder of the hidden dangers of finding extra-terrestrial life.

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Last night, I had the opportunity to watch the latest Sci-fi horror film, “Life”. Now, before you begin reading this article, I must warn you of potential spoilers. If you are OK with it, read on.  

The film follows a six-member crew on board the International Space Station (ISS) who were tasked to capture a probe returning from Mars with soil samples. After successfully capturing the probe, exobiologist Hugh Derry (played by Ariyon Bakare) began a series of extractions on the soil samples and successfully managed to isolate a single-cell organism. By altering the atmospheric conditions, nutrient levels, and temperature, the single-celled organism was brought back to life from a long state of hibernation. 

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The revival sparked a global sensation back on earth as a first for mankind and proof that extra-terrestrial life exists on another planet. Back in the bio-lab module in the ISS, the single celled organism started dividing rapidly. It soon reacted to stimuli and discovered that each cell in the organism is a muscle cell, a neuron, and a photoreceptor all at the same time. This ability gave the organism extraordinary adaptive and learning capabilities.

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The rapid growth and adaptive capabilities of the organism led to events that became every astronauts’ worst nightmare; how to contain it. Soon the organism broke free from the containment unit in the bio-lab. Hugh Derry’s hand was brutally crushed when the organism in the containment unit wrapped around it, causing him to lose consciousness from pain. As the only exobiologist with clearance to work in the bio-lab, the rest of the ISS crew watched helplessly in horror as the organism squirmed its way out of the containment unit and into an animal housing unit where a white lab mouse was strapped down in zero-gravity. The organism wrapped itself around the mouse and began devouring it for nutrients, rapidly growing in size as it devours its prey.

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According to quarantine protocols dictated by Dr. Miranda North, a quarantine officer (played by Rebecca Ferguson), nobody other than Hugh Derry can enter the bio lab to do experiments. Only he has the technical expertise to manage the lab. Should there be containment issues, the bio-lab will have to be on lockdown regardless if there is anyone trapped in the module. Systems engineer Rory Adams (played by Ryan Reynolds) broke protocol and entered the bio-lab to rescue Hugh Derry. As he tried to pull him out of the bio-lab and throw him through the hatch, the organism wrapped itself around Rory Adams’s leg. Medical officer, David Jordan (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) locked him inside to contain the organism. Rory Adams fought for his life in the bio-lab but the organism was too strong for him and soon wrapped itself around his head and entered his mouth, where he died a gory mess as the organism ate him from the inside. The fire suppression sequence was triggered in the biolab and the organism escaped through the fire suppression vents. From there, all hell broke loose as the organism is now free to roam the ISS. 

While there is no evidence to suggest that there is life on Mars (not yet anyway), and that “Life” is marketed as a Sci-Fi horror film, portraying the extra-terrestrial organism as a menace, it does raise serious questions. If we find extra-terrestrial life, how do we deal with it? How do we assess the threat that it might potentially pose to all life on Earth? If it is a threat, how do we contain it? What are the protocols for containment? If it is contained or eradicated, how do we ensure that it works?

We know that life is extremely diverse. We have found life in extreme environments, such as worms living beside super-hot vents deep underwater, and microbes surviving in extremely salty environments. We even managed to find microbes living deep within the Antarctic ice. There is still a lot we don’t know about them when it comes to these ‘extremophiles’ as it is very difficult to study them in its native environment. Which then begs the question; what is extra-terrestrial life  -should we find one, capable of?

In the film, Firewall Protocols were enacted to prevent dangerous extra-terrestrial organisms from reaching Earth. There are three layers to the protocol. The first layer is containing the containment unit where the organism is revived. Should that fail, and the organism is released, the second layer is triggered, that is, the containment of the bio-lab. No personnel is allowed in once it’s been contaminated. Should that fail as well, (as in the movie) and if the crew is unable to neutralise the threat, the third and most drastic layer is triggered. A Soyuz vessel launched from earth is docked to the ISS and thrusters from the Soyuz vessel will push the entire ISS into deep space, preventing ISS from entering Earth’s atmosphere.

In reality, such protocols are drastic even by NASA’s standards. Most soil samples from the moon ( and potentially Mars) were brought back to earth in containment vessels with containment protocols for further analysis. It is argued that it is far better to analyse such samples on Earth with greater access to resources and expertise as compared to a space vessel in space orbiting the planet. However, it does highlight the hidden dangers of bringing back such samples back to Earth that may potentially harbour life.

Without a doubt, it is exciting to discover life outside Earth. It will answer an age old question; are we alone in this Universe? There will always be active discussions on the religious and cultural aspects that such a discovery could give rise to. But we should not ignore the potential biological threat it may pose to life on Earth. In other words, be careful what you searched for.

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