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'LIFE' imitating life off Earth: Space Station history 'easter eggs' in sci-fi thriller

Sony Pictures' "LIFE," directed by Daniel Espinosa, sets a science fiction thriller on the International Space Station. (Sony Pictures)
Mar 24, 2017

- In space, everyone can see your homages.

"LIFE," Sony Pictures' new science fiction thriller featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds, has been described as a modern day "Alien" set on board the International Space Station. The movie, which opened in theaters on Friday (March 24), follows a space crew as they encounter an emerging life form, not unlike the basic plot of the 1979 Ridley Scott classic.

And that's not by accident.

"It references practically all of those great movies... all [the way] from 'The Thing' to 'Alien' to '2001' to 'Solaris,'" said "LIFE" director Daniel Espinosa.

But given his movie's setting — a real-life, if somewhat re-imagined space station, rather than a fictional starfreighter or interplanetary spaceship — Espinosa was also inspired by and included nods ("easter eggs") to spaceflight history. The Chile-born, Sweden-based director said he even hid a reference to the first Swede in space, Christer Fuglesang, though would not reveal what or where it is.

"The movie has tons of small secrets," said Espinosa in an interview. "It has a little reference to Fuglesang, who is our great champion. But there were other astronauts who were part of the process, so look at the movie intently, it is out there — but it's secret!"

What follows are five references in "LIFE" to space station and space exploration history, which may or may not have been intentional, followed a few bonus easter eggs spotted on a first viewing of the film. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Wait, what space station are we on?

As noted from the start, "LIFE" is set on the International Space Station, the orbital laboratory that has been crewed by more than 250 people over the course of more than 16 years (the same statistics are stated accurately in the film). And sure enough, in addition to countless mentions of the "ISS," the movie's six crewmates (portrayed by Gyllenhaal, Ferguson, Reynolds, Ariyon Bakare, Hiroyuki Sanada and Olga Dihovichnaya) also call out some of the real station's modules, including Unity, Tranquility, Zvezda and Kibo.

In "LIFE," the space station is controlled from a console that more closely resembles equipment used on Skylab. (Sony Pictures)

But space history enthusiasts would not be at fault if they become briefly confused about what space staton the crew is on during several key sequences in "LIFE."

In the movie, the astronauts control and monitor the space station's systems from a large, submarine-like console that is unlike anything aboard the International Space Station. But it does bear a more than passing resemblance to the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) console that was on board Skylab, the United States' first space station.

"On the front of the ATM console were the many switches and indicators that were used to control electrical power to each telescope, to open and close experiment doors, and to change the operational pace of each instrument," wrote John Eddy in a 1979 NASA history. "Dials and counters displayed instrument readiness conditions and, as on any camera, showed how many frames remained in each film magazine."

SL-4 science pilot Ed Gibson works at the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) console aboard the Skylab workshop in 1974. (NASA)

The Skylab ATM console also incorporated TV screens for monitoring live events, similar to how the control station is configured in "LIFE."

In another of the film's scenes, Reynolds' character, Rory Adams, complains, "Sixteen steps to fix a shower? I am an astronaut, not a gym teacher." Any number of steps would be impressive, given that the ISS does not have a shower. But Skylab did...

That's how you go to the bathroom in space

As Adams (Reynolds) works on the (non-existent) shower, he sits inside a very convincing replica of the International Space Station's Waste and Hygiene Compartment (WHC), complete with a suction-powered toilet and even a spoof of an already humorous decal affixed inside the real facility in space.

The authentic emblem features a spacewalking astronaut, holding a roll of toilet paper, heading for an old-fashioned, outdoor bathroom. The insignia is inscribed, "International Space Station Orbital Outhouse Team."

Ryan Reynolds, as Rory Adams, in "LIFE" (at left) works on fixing the shower inside the Waste and Hygiene Compartment (WHC) on the space station. At right, the real WHC. (Sony Pictures/NASA)

The "LIFE" version also features a spacewalker, but rather than floating, he appears to have launched from Earth by gas — or rather, flatulence — powered propulsion.

The WHC is one of several true-to-life features that can be spotted inside the "LIFE" space station. Other equipment and components that were somewhat accurately recreated for the movie include a microgravity science glovebox and the multi-window Cupola (though the latter is considerably larger than its on-orbit inspiration).

Rodent research

The "LIFE" cast is small: other than the six astronauts and a few supporting characters on Earth, the only other life in "LIFE" are the Martian creature (named "Calvin" through a student contest, another detail that rings true to how things have been named on the station) and a white lab rat.

The rodent is not out of place on the space station. Since 2014, NASA and CASIS, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which manages the science on board the U.S. National Laboratory section of the orbital outpost, have been launching mice as part of an on going series of rodent research studies focused on investigating different biological aspects of microgravity exposure.

The lab rat as seen on the space station in "LIFE." (Sony Pictures)

Like the rat in "LIFE," the actual rodent residents are on an ill-fated mission; they are euthanized as part of the needs of the research. In the movie, the rat's end — as Calvin's first victim — is considerably less humane.

Drowning on a spacewalk

While on the subject of casualties, the commander of the station in "LIFE," Russian cosmonaut Ekaterina Golovkina (Dihovichnaya) meets her own end by drowning while on a spacewalk, a scenario that might have been deemed too unbelievable even for a movie had it not almost occurred to a real astronaut four years ago.

On July 16, 2013, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency (ESA) was just over an hour into a planned six and a half hour extravehicular activity (EVA) outside of the International Space Station when his helmet began to fill with water. Fortunately, Parmitano was able to make it back to the airlock in time to safely get inside.

"The moment when they removed my helmet, that's when we found out that about 1.5 liters of water had collected inside the helmet. Now the helmet is pretty small, so a liter and a half of water is quite a bit; it really felt like I was a goldfish in a fishbowl, on the wrong side," Parmitano later recalled at an ESA conference.

Cosmonaut Ekaterina Golovkina's (Olga Dihovichnaya) helmet fills with water (at left). On the right, water inside a real helmet as seen during tests after a July 2013 spacewalk. (Sony Pictures/NASA)

In "LIFE," Golovkina's helmet is flooded because Calvin is compressing her spacesuit's coolant system. Parmitano's helmet filled up with water due to contamination clogging a filter.

Where there's (oxygen) smoke, there's fire

Despite its ability to survive longer than most creatures in the vacuum of space, Calvin, like other carbon-based life forms, is said to require oxygen. So when the station's life support starts to fail, David Jordan (Gyllenhaal) realizes he and Miranda North (Ferguson) can lure out the Martian by using oxygen candles.

A backup to the station's primary oxygen supply, oxygen candles are not an invention for the movie. Each solid-fuel oxygen generator (SFOG) aboard the actual space station contains enough lithium perchlorate to produce oxygen for one person to last a full day.

The candles do not create a flame — or are not supposed to under normal operation — and unlike in "LIFE" are not handheld or a source of light.

David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) holds up an oxygen candle to lure Calvin out of hiding, as seen in "LIFE." (Sony Pictures)

And whereas the threat from the oxygen candle in the film is a close encounter with Calvin, the SFOG (Vika or TGK, as referred to by Roscosmos, the Russian federal space corporation) was the source of an emergency on board a space station when one of the canisters caught fire.

The 90-second blaze occurred aboard the former Russian space station Mir on Feb. 24, 1997. It caused only minor damage to the orbiting outpost, but the crew were exposed to heavy smoke and had to don goggles and masks as a result.

Quick (dis)connects

In addition to the preceding five references, here are some other nods to space history in "LIFE":

At one point Jordan (Gyllenhaal) recounts the Challenger, referring to the real space shuttle tragedy that claimed the lives of the seven STS-51L crew members in 1986.

Jordan, the crew's medical doctor, is said to be celebrating a record 473 days in space. That would indeed be a record and given the specific number, may be a nod to Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who holds the real life record for the single longest space mission at 437 days. Polyakov set his record on Mir; the longest single mission on board the ISS was 340 days by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Roscosmos cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko in 2016.

NASA did not provide permission for its insignia to be used in "LIFE" but several times in the film you can spot crew members wearing a patch that features the agency's name printed in all lowercase.

Sho Murakami (Sanada) celebrates his daughter's birth on Earth with his ISS crewmates in a scene that reflects the experiences of real astronauts on the station. Mike Fincke received word of the arrival of a daughter while serving as an Expedition 9 flight engineer in April 2004. And Randy Bresnik, who is set to launch again to the space station in late July, announced the birth of his daughter by passing out candy cigars and revealing a pink onesie adorned with his STS-129 mission patch in November 2009.

Jordan (Gyllenhaal) plays with a yo-yo in microgravity, a possible nod to Don Pettit, who did the same on the space station as part of his "Science off the Sphere" fun physics demonstrations in 2013.

At the end of "LIFE," the credits roll to "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum, a song that featured prominently in the soundtrack for the 1995 feature film "Apollo 13," based on the 1970 NASA moon mission.

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