'Life': How Sci-Fi Horror Gives Scientists a Bad Name

Fictional biologists have been paying for Victor Frankenstein's sins for years — and the tradition continues in the Jake Gyllenhaal film.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Life]

Many have noted that Daniel Espinosa’s Life bears a strong resemblance to 1979's Alien, but there's actually a much earlier work that's surprisingly relevant to the new film: Mary Shelley 's Frankenstein.

In many ways, fictional scientists have been paying for the sins of Victor Frankenstein ever since the 1812 novel was released — with scientists portrayed as meddlers who bring disaster upon the world. The scientists of Life, in many ways, are no different. 

Sci-fi horror films tap specifically into fears related to science, with worries rooted in real-world current events. Movie physicists had a particularly hard time after World War II (see: Godzilla). Movie biologists, meanwhile, with a few notable exceptions such as last year's The Martian, have had a pretty consistently poor cinematic track record. One of the reasons for this is that the real fears so often embodied by movie biologists are only tangentially related to things that real scientists have actually done — which brings us to Life and Frankenstein.

In Life, Calvin only goes from friendly space Flubber to bloodthirsty blob-monster after exobiologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) decides it’s a good idea to try electrocuting the extraterrestrial out of a trauma-induced dormancy. The movie tries to present this, and Derry’s general treatment of Calvin, as a sort of hubristic, “scientific curiosity gone too far” sort of situation, as sci-fi horror so often does. The issue is that there is nothing scientific about Derry’s fateful decision, only what we might call “Frankensteinian”— and not even the James Whale thunder-lightning “It’s alive!” Frankenstein, but the Mary Shelley original: “I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”

Let’s zap it to make it do stuff isn’t the rationale of a scientific mind made dangerous by ethical and/or philosophical nearsightedness (as evidenced by the parallel of the character requiring glasses), it’s the attitude one might expect from children unsupervised at a zoo. Calvin goes dormant as a result of extreme, short-term environmental stress caused by a technical malfunction in the lab. Attempting to coax an organism out of a stress-induced dormancy by introducing a new stressor, especially when the physiology of said organism is still largely unknown, is pretty impossible to justify from a scientific angle — unless, of course, you are viewing science through the lens of Frankenstein, as the media often does, whether that be in movies or news articles that mention the fictional scientist when discussing controversial topics from GMO crops to stem cell research.  

But making Frankenstein the poster boy for the dangers of science is flawed; he represents science about as much as Scientology.

And though “Beware of science” might be what many take away from narratives from Frankenstein to Life, there is a fundamental issue here: stories about the horrors of science very often make use of objectively bad science.

The core of science is the scientific method. Curiosity might fuel it, but it is the scientific method that actually defines the machine. It's the skeleton which gives science its shape. When science fiction takes this skeleton away, it’s no wonder that what’s left behind is so often a nightmarish, misshapen monster.

Science is all about protocol, but take a minute to try to think of a sci-fi horror film that doesn’t involve protocol breach. It’s not impossible, but it might take you a while. Life does actually attempt to address the importance of protocol in science, such as when CDC-sourced Quarantine Officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) takes issue with Derry’s treatment of Calvin (“this will never be a controlled experiment”). It also puts one of the most significant protocol breaches in the hands of engineer Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds), who is characterized as an affable handyman type instead of being more traditionally “science-coded” — an important distinction between Life and Alien, which handed the fate-sealing protocol breach to Science Officer Ash (even if he is ultimately revealed to be a fraud in more ways than one). So perhaps there are some subtle allusions to this issue, but ultimately Life still presents us with the dangers of bad science without really identifying it as such. 

All of this is not to say that there is not a “dark side” to science, only that many sci-fi horror narratives, with Life being the most recent, do not really show the dangers of science, but rather the dangers of science done poorly. “Disasters can happen when people are bad at their jobs” is less of a critique of the nature of scientific inquiry and more of a basic truism.

At multiple points in Life, the characters consider who among them is to blame for the Calvin situation. They seem to agree on a sort of shared responsibility, which is quite noble, but perhaps unwarranted — after all, they only stumbled when they followed in the footsteps of Dr. Frankenstein. 

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