The Surprise Ending of Ryan Reynolds & Jake Gyllenhaal's 'Life,' Explained

Columbia Pictures
This post contains major spoilers for Life, the Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds alien-on-a-spaceship thriller, now in theaters.

Screenwriting duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, Zombieland) didn't set out to rip off Alien. Instead, their new movie Life uses the ingredients that made Ridley Scott's movie into a bona fide sci-fi classic and spins them into a more grounded, contemporary take. "It's been a while since there was a claustrophobic movie with a monster-in-a-haunted-house feel to it like this," Reese told Thrillist. "We wanted to make this generation's defining sci-fi horror film."

Set aboard the International Space Station in the not-too-distant future, Life chronicles a group of astronauts on a mission to collect groundbreaking Martian samples that could hold the key to extraterrestrial lifeforms. The initial microscopic proof of life -- nicknamed "Calvin" by a schoolgirl who wins a contest back on Earth -- soon grows into a kind of resilient mollusk creature. It then follows its animal instincts to protect itself against what it sees as a threat: the ISS crew, primarily made up of CDC specialist Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), and wise-cracking flyboy mechanic Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds). Since this is a space thriller that embraces its B-movie instincts, things do not end well. But that was by design.

life movie
Columbia Pictures

"You watch movies now and within the first five minutes you can chart the beginning, middle, and end," Wernick said. "We always like to be left-of-center, and throw as many curveballs at the audience as we can."

The curviest curveball includes killing off one of the film's top-billed stars, the actor whom Wernick and Reese call their "muse," in one of the film's most delightfully gruesome early scenes. Following Calvin's growth into what resembles a jellyfish monster, Reynolds' character rushes into the ship's lab to try and trap the ticked-off E.T. Despite Reynolds' blowtorch attack, Calvin soon wiggles his way into Reynolds' character's mouth and liquefies his insides while the audience is left watching what happens on the outside.

"It's not often that Ryan has a death scene," Wernick said of his Deadpool compatriot. "It's great to have that happen to him in that movie-star role, so suddenly the audience realizes anything could happen."

life jake gyllenhaal ending
Sony Pictures

Still, nobody saw that ending coming, right?

One of the real treats of Life is that even though you can reduce the movie to its influences, it still manages to be mostly unpredictable. That's especially true of its semi-insane ending.

With nearly everybody in the crew decimated, Ferguson and Gyllenhaal's characters concoct a scheme involving the ship's escape pods to ensure Calvin won't reach Earth. Ferguson goes one way, hoping to escape to the planet's surface, while Gyllenhaal supposedly sacrifices himself by trapping Calvin in the pod while rocketing away to deep space and certain death.

Except… not. The escape pod thrusters send Ferguson to die alone in outer space while Calvin ends up consuming Gyllenhaal as their pod splashes down in the middle of the ocean on Earth. Cut to black, hopefully leaving the audience speechless. It was always meant to be that way.    

"It's shocking how little the script changed from first draft to completed movie," Reese said. "It's probably the least amount of changes out of any script we've ever done." He applauded Columbia Pictures' willingness to be supportive about the Rory character's early death, and the downbeat ending that assumes all life on Earth is doomed.

"There's always this idea that movies have to have happy endings, but to us it was less bleak than it was interesting," Wernick said, while Reese continued: "An ending doesn't have to be happy to be satisfying. As long as it's a satisfying ending that logically makes sense within the confines of the story then it should work. For life to flourish, other life had to be destroyed. That's the cruel paradox we really wanted to end on."  

But that isn't necessarily the end. Reese and Wernick confirmed the ending was meant to set up a possible sequel.

life jake gyllenhaal movie ending sequel
Sony Pictures

"What would happen if Calvin was on Earth with an unlimited food supply, able to grow exponentially and reproduce, and become even more terrifying?" Wernick asked in regards to what would happen in a potential follow-up. But Reese was quick to point out they haven't fully fleshed out the idea. "We don't have anything concrete, but there are definite thoughts and possibilities."

What about it being a prequel? As for the recent internet rumor that Life supposedly sets up a Venom franchise in the Spider-Man universe, Wernick took it in stride. "It was a perfect storm of people connecting the dots to the wrong conclusion," he said. "Unfortunately, we weren't smart enough to connect those dots ourselves." Reese thought the Venom gossip was good for Life for another reason. "We should've spread the rumor," he said, "to help the box-office numbers."

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Sean Hutchinson is a pop-culture writer based in Brooklyn, New York. You can read his other work on Mental Floss, Inverse, and elsewhere. He knows more about Star Wars than anybody in their right mind should. Find him on Twitter @seanbhutchinson.