INTERVIEW

‘Life’ adviser Kevin Fong on balancing fact with fiction: ‘Don’t get in the way of the story’

A doctor specialising in space medicine, Kevin Fong has worked with NASA and the European Space Agency and is one of the experts on the March 24 release.

Space as imagined by Hollywood teems with existential threats. In Daniel Espinosa’s upcoming film Life, it is an extraterrestrial life form found on Mars. Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds are among a crew of six astronauts aboard the International Space Station who successfully intercept a probe returning from Mars with a sample of alien life. This organism turns out not to be as benign as they initially presume.

Drawing on tropes from both horror and science-fiction, the March 24 release portrays the astronauts’ scramble to contain this alien life form before it can escape the ISS and obliterate all life on Earth.

As a critical element of the science-fiction genre is verisimilitude, the filmmakers called on experts who have worked in the field of space. One of them was Kevin Fong, a doctor who specialises in medicine in space and other extreme conditions. Fong has worked intermittently with the United States of America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration for around a decade and also with the European Space Agency. He has a degree in Astrophysics and Medicine from University College, London. In an interview with Scroll.in, Fong describes his experience of working on Life, the constraints that exist in space, and why scientists need to learn when to back off from film scripts.

Science-fiction films have come a long way since Ridley Scott’s Alien, which is perhaps the film to which people will compare Life. What has changed between now and then?
Alien is a very high benchmark. I think what has changed actually more than anything else is that although you want to compare it to Alien, it’s not the same type of film. Alien is set in a very far flung future, where people are in hyper-sleep and exploring star systems very far away. This is happening on your doorstep, 250 miles above the surface of the Earth in a space station that exists.

I think what’s changed is that since those films, the theme of space exploration has become something we understand much better. And since the launch of the International Space Station [in 1998], there has always been a human being in space. What that means is that space is no longer a place that we temporarily visit. It’s a place in which we live and work. In that there comes an idea that there are people whose entire lives is spent in this very hazardous environment where everything is precariously balanced – and then what happens when you introduce an extra problem into that mix.

Although we talk about it being science fiction, it is almost now just fiction. In many ways, this is a drama that takes place in an industrial setting. It is just that this industrial setting happens to be space, but now space is a place people inhabit.

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Life.

How closely involved were you with Life? Did your role begin at the scripting stage or on set?
We were involved from the outset, from before they started filming, when they were just storyboarding the scenes and then we spent quite a few days on set, helping mainly with the medical scenes for me because I have worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a space life sciences director for a while.

So I talked about space medicine and to the cast, about the experience of being a doctor. I don’t know what they gleaned from that. It was an interesting experience to have people ask you about what you do professionally in a very different way. Actors have a different process of trying to understand your experience rather than the mechanics of your job.

In the film, the astronauts encounter stressful situations that require quick responses. Given the constraints and physical effects of space on the body, how will they be able to deal medically with this?
Space has a lot of deep and profound effects on the human body. When you first go to space, it takes a long while to acclimatise to it. The first two or three days, the astronauts can often feel quite awful. It does affect your body and your ability to track moving objects. But after a while, you adapt to that and you begin to be able to function well enough for everyday tasks. There are a lot of impacts on the body due to spaceflight. It affects your balance and coordination, your heart and circulation, your breathing. It affects your entire body.

But amid all that, there are medical constraints, which to me as a doctor is what makes that environment quite interesting. You’re constrained in the kind of skills you can take. In this film, there are two doctors in the space station [including Jake Gyllenhaal], which is unusual. You’re constrained in the number of skilled physicians you have, so in my hospital, when I encounter trouble, i have any number of colleagues who know more, whether I’m asking for a cardiac specialist, or a pulmonary specialist to back me up in intensive care or in an operation theatre.

In space, you’re a lone gun and on your own. Then you’re restricted by the power. You don’t have the same volume or the same weight. You can’t take a lot of equipment up there. You’re not up there having CT scanners or MRI scanners. So it is a real expedition experience as a doctor. I’ve been on expeditions as a doctor and it’s a much more uncomfortable experience than being in a hospital setting surrounded by all your people and your equipment.

Kevin Fong. Photo by Anthony Cullen.
Kevin Fong. Photo by Anthony Cullen.

There are two doctors on board the ISS in this film. How do you feel about that as a doctor yourself?
I worked with NASA on and off for ten years. I saw doctors who looked after astronauts. I have friends who are doctors and astronauts. I have seen them up close at work and worked alongside them. So the portrayals were very faithful in different ways. I was impressed as an outsider to watch this process happen. This cast and crew and scriptwriters take people and shape them into being believable as clinicians, forget the fact that they were on a space station. To me, they were believable as clinicians in the way they behaved.

We have had missions before with doctors in the cruise. And there have been in my memory a number of missions where you have more than one medically trained person in the crew. All of that is within the bounds of reality. And again, the filmmakers and scriptwriters didn’t overstep the mark in terms of the capabilities they gave these people. The temptation here is to endow these doctors with far more capability than they have on the space station. The space station does not have a lot of medical equipment. Their main recourse if things go wrong is to try and evacuate early and come home. When that happens, you really are in a lot of trouble.

I thought all of that was really well played. I was most closely involved in the medical scenes, which was really just about making the performance of the doctor believable. Nothing annoys me more than being a doctor and watching a medical drama where they hold the stethoscope the wrong way around or they try to do something with a cardiac defibrillator that is actually impossible or would never be done in real life. So it was quite nice for me to be able to exorcise some of those demons – to say, ‘No, this is wrong,’ and then have people listen to you.

Science fiction films are often a gateway for children to pursue careers in science. As a scientist and a film adviser, how do you balance creative demands with scientific reality?
You mustn’t get in the way of the story. That’s really important for a scientist in this environment to understand. There’s a temptation to think that this is my territory and it must look truly to real life. But the truth about science is of course that quite a lot of it is spending an awful lot of time reading books and looking at microscopes and doing stuff that actually is quite slow and ponderous and doesn’t look good on film. You have to be realistic about the needs of the story and the balancing of needs of reality.

The trick is not making the most realistic portrayal that can be made. Because that is a documentary. The trick lies in blending the needs of the story as closely as possible with what is real. When that is done well, you get films that are really beautiful. That is a real high-wire trip trying to get that balance right.

I think people get it wrong in both directions. I think scientists can be too pedantic about science, but also in a story, people might ride roughshod over some very fundamental things. When you get the partnership right, I think it can work very well.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life.
Jake Gyllenhaal in Life.
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Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images
Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images

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