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.

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Going Rogue

The Mission: Impossible film franchise is fascinating for a couple of reasons. It’s the only multi-episode series that has had a different director for each film, so each episode has had a different style. Brian De Palma’s original was a straightforward “bigger = better” version of the original series while John Woo brought the ying-yang dichotomy of Hong Kong cinema to the table – the hero and villain were opposite sides of the same coin, as in the classic Infernal Affairs, the basis for Scorsese’s The Departed. (Woo also brought his trademark kung fu and gunplay.) With J.J. Abrams the story became more personal with hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fighting both for his country and the love of his life, while Brad Bird reminded the viewer that it was always the I:M team – not just one main character – who saved the day. Bird also infused the story with surprising humor as well as stunts that took your breath away. The other reason the franchise is fascinating is it gets better each time.

Now we have Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, this time with Christopher McQuarrie in the driver’s seat as director and screenwriter, from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3). McQuarrie wrote the classic screenplay for The Usual Suspects. His follow-up screenplays were less well received, though he established a relationship with Cruise by doing Valkyrie and Jack Reacher before they both had success with last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. For Rogue Nation, McQuarrie uses the template of James Bond, with a globetrotting story that has stops in Russia, Austria, Morocco, and London. He also exceeds the stunt work of Ghost Protocol and that’s not an easy thing to do.

The movie begins with the transport plane sequence featured in much of the publicity for the movie, with Ethan Hunt hanging off of the side of a plane in flight while trying to get inside with the help of computer geeks Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames). (The sequence was done old school, with Cruise actually doing the stunt.) At the same time, Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is trying to save the IMF from a play by the head of the CIA, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), to roll the force into the Agency.

Ethan is convinced a force of former intelligence officers that he calls the Syndicate is operating in secret to destabilize the world. When he goes into a record store to receive one of the classic self-destruct mission briefings he finds himself trapped by the head of the Syndicate (Sean Harris) and then brutally interrogated. He manages to escape with the help of a female Syndicate member, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Branded a rogue agent himself by Hunley, Ethan has to track down and expose the Syndicate.

McQuarrie keeps the story from going too far over the top and fills it with plenty of twists and turns, most of which pivot on the Faust character. Rebecca Ferguson is a Swedish actress with an English mother who had impressed McQuarrie with her work as Elizabeth on the miniseries “The White Queen.” She performs an incredible balancing act as Faust so that the audience is never sure which side she’s on throughout the movie.

Pegg and Renner are now firmly established as part of the IMF, and after only a cameo appearance in Ghost Protocol Ving Rhames is back as a full part of the team. Even though the movie slips back into centering on Cruise’s character, it does overall keep the importance of the team working together to stop the Rogue Nation.

The stunt work is exceptional, in particular a chase sequence through Marrakesh with cars and motorcycles as well as the opening sequence. It’s the literate script, intricately plotted, and that lifts this film beyond a simple string of action sequences and makes it one of the more satisfying thrillers to come along this year.