The Ultimate Haunted House Story

A classic subgenre of horror is the haunted house, where people are caught in a building with an evil force of some kind that means them harm. A classic novel of this genre would be Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s even more popular for horror movies, with a great example being Robert Wise’s adaptation of Jackson’s story, 1963’s The Haunting. (The remake in 1999 is an example of the worse of the genre.) Other good examples include two adaptations of Stephen King stories, The Shining and 1408, and 1973’s The Legend of Hell House, based on a Richard Matheson novel adapted by the author. In 1979, Ridley Scott blended the conventions of the haunted house with science fiction for the original Alien. Now there’s a new sci-fi/horror hybrid: Life.

In the near future, six astronauts on the International Space Station prepare to capture a probe returning from Mars with samples from the planet’s surface. The ISS astronauts are themselves an international group, with a Russian commanding officer, Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). British containment specialist Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) must ensure the station isn’t contaminated by the samples, while another Brit, botanist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), will examine what the soil contains. The weightlessness of space is especially good for Derry, who is a paraplegic. The crew is rounded out by Japanese systems specialist Sho Murikami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and two Yanks, pilot Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) and senior medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Adams manages to trap the probe, and the samples are transferred to a lab on the station and placed in an isolation box. Derry introduces other factors to the samples including atmosphere and water, and is rewarded by the growth of a tiny organism. Children at a school in the United States are given the honor of naming the first example of life outside our world, and they call it “Calvin.” Derry’s fascinated by Calvin, whose individual cells are capable of multiple functions. At first Calvin looks like a delicate flower, but as it grows it shows it will do anything to survive.

Director Daniel Espinosa had worked with Ryan Reynolds before, on the hit thriller Safe House in 2012. Espinosa’s follow-up, Child 44 (based on Tom Rob Smith’s acclaimed novel), died at the box office in spite of the presence of Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, and several other distinguished actors. It only managed a 25% score on Rotten Tomatoes. He’s recovered his mojo with Life, certified fresh on RT. The action moves smoothly from twist to twist as the suspense is ratcheted up with each scene.

Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have often blended comedy with thrills, having done 2009’s Zombieland and then last year’s mega-hit Deadpool. With Life they play it straight, and they also play it realistic. In a way they’ve taken their cue from The Martian. The space station has limited resources for the astronauts that can’t simply be replaced by the writer playing God. It’s not like the westerns where a gunfighter might shoot off twenty rounds without reloading his six-shooter.

Another point of realism is with the interaction of the cast. While Gyllenhaal, Reynolds, and Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) are established stars – and get their pictures on the poster – they blend into a unit with Dihovichnaya, Bakare, and Sanada.

Life definitely owes a debt to Alien, though the overall feel of the movies is different. One interesting connection is that Ridley Scott produced Espinosa’s Child 44. While they stand separate, Life does remind you of the power and effectiveness of Alien before it got diluted by Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and Prometheus. Perhaps Alien: Covenant later this year will recapture some of the original’s Life.

The Best Revenge

Comics have not been kind to Ryan Reynolds. His first foray in a movie based on a comic book was 2004’s Blade: Trinity, where he was hard to see behind Wesley Snipes’ ego. In 2011 he starred as the DC Comics Green Lantern, which was a major misfire. The only good thing to say about it was it was the entrance to the DC Comic world of screenwriter and producer Greg Berlanti, who has since adapted Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow for the small screen. The less said about 2013’s R.I.P.D. the better – the title is almost too much by itself. Saddest, though, was 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, because he got to play a role he’d wanted to do for years, mercenary Wade Wilson (a.k.a. the Merc with a mouth and, more importantly, Deadpool). The movie messed with the character, grafting on other X-Men powers to Deadpool and, worse, sewing his mouth shut. For a character whose dialogue is a large part of his appeal, silencing him was a blunder – nothing unusual for that movie. But Reynolds continued to hope to redo the role, even doing a 3-minute test film in 2012. 20th Century Fox, the studio with the rights to the X-Men system of the Marvel Universe, showed the test to fans two years later and it garnered great excitement. Based on that response the studio finally greenlit Deadpool, with Reynolds as both star and producer.

Fox didn’t make it easy, which is something they have historically done (as fans of “Firefly” or “Dollhouse” can attest). They gave the film a miniscule budget in comparison to other superhero movies, and then cut additional millions from it so the final amount was around $58 million. In comparison, X-Men Origins: Wolverine had a budget of $150 million. Reynolds cut his own salary to make the movie, and they had to rewrite the script to take out other X-men characters as well as scenes that they could no longer afford. First-time director Tim Miller had only made two short films in the early 2000s, though one of them was nominated for a short subject Oscar. Following that he went into visual effects for games, developing “Mass Effect 2” and “Star Wars – The Old Republic”. The movie is rated R rather than PG-13 like almost every other superhero movie. The last superhero movie to get an R was Punisher: War Zone, which bombed in 2008.

But the best revenge is to prove the doubters wrong, and that’s what Ryan Reynolds has done. Deadpool grossed almost triple its budget in the first weekend, and it received a 8.7 out of 10 rating from IMDb and a Rotten Tomatoes audience rating of 95%, a better score than Marvel’s The Avengers. Miller now has the record for the highest grossing debut feature film ever, beating out the co-director of Shrek the Third. And as a final payoff, a sequel has been announced, likely for next year.

The basic plot is the Deadpool origin story. Former Special Forces soldier Wade Wilson is a mercenary who survives by taking enforcer gigs in New York City. If you need someone to stop a stalker who’s been threatening you, Wilson’s the guy. He frequents a bar run by his friend Weasel (TJ Miller) where he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). He falls hard for her, and she for him. They’re deliriously happy until Wilson is felled again, this time by cancer that has spread through his organs. At the bar he meets the Recruiter (Jed Rees) who offers to heal the cancer and give him super powers. Wilson agrees, but then discovers the head of the project, Ajax (Ed Skrien), and his assistant Angel Dust (Gina Carano) intend to turn him into a super slave. A forced mutation turns him physically ugly while giving him the power to heal and even regenerate limbs. Wilson manages to escape and takes the name Deadpool while he seeks out Ajax for revenge.

The great fun with both the comic book and the movie, though, is that Deadpool knows he’s a fictional character. He constantly breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly with his snarky comments as well as referring to items outside the comic book world. For instance, when the X-man Colossus says he’s taking Deadpool to Professor Xavier, Deadpool shoots back, “Which one: Stewart or McAvoy?” The audience knows right from the start this is not your typical movie, since the opening credits are from Deadpool’s perspective with generic descriptions (such as “Producers: A Couple of Asshats”) while the camera pans through violent close-ups in the middle of a car crash, all set to the song “Angel of the Morning” by Juice Newton. There are so many items referenced in the movie, the DVD commentary will likely run three times the length of the movie.

The crazy thing is, it works as an adventure story, a superhero original tale, and as wicked comedy – you could even throw in romance story and Hollywood insider commentary as well. Director Miller has pulled off a high-wire balancing act the equivalent of the Flying Wallendas. It helped that the comic was adapted for the screen by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who pulled off a similar trick with Zombieland. (The opening credits call the screenwriters “the real heroes here.”) Reynolds also did some uncredited work on the script, and the actors were allowed to improvise in some scenes, but it all blends together into a movie that’s fresh, irreverent, exceptionally violent but also heartfelt.

The bottom line is it’s fun. It won’t be everyone’s shot of wry whiskey (pun intended), but if you like Marvel movies, or comedies such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’ll likely get to the end of Deadpool with your mouth hurting from smiling and laughing so much. And do make sure you watch all the way to the end of the real credits – it’s worth it.