Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Annihilation

The directorial debut of writer Alex Garland, whose most famous novel is The Beach and whose screenplays include 28 Days Later (and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later), SunshineNever Let Me Go, and Dredd, was Ex Machina, three years ago. It was a bold yet subtly eerie look at AI; not quite dystopian, but bordering on it. In his follow-up, Garland has adopted the novel by Jeff VanderMeer called Annihilation. In this story, there again is a "not-good place", called "the Shimmer", a quarantined expanse where creatures mutate, and yet this film is grander and faces a lot more big swings. One of them is that Garland is not going to give a lot of answers, and while that may still work fifty years on with something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it doesn't work here.

It's not as if Annihilation does not try. Speaking of Kubrick's famous film, it does often look like Annihilation takes inspiration from the avant-garde sci-fi flick (along with AlienJurassic Park, and a touch of Pan's Labyrinth), certainly in terms of visuals. But pretty images do not make up for a lack of story and character development, and they certainly don't, on their own, inspire viewers and excite viewers, or at the very least wake those who are bored out of their mind. Such is the problem with Annihilation.

The movie starts in an ominous way. A character named Lena sits answering questions, not sure of much, especially the whereabouts of her colleagues. She wears white medical clothing, quarantined, being questioned by a character played by Benedict Wong, and she seems totally dazed and confused, unable to recall anything of her nearly four months in the Shimmer. We can deduce that she is the sole survivor. Lena is a cancer professor and former soldier going through grief after the death of her partner, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac), a soldier who has died in a mission she knows little about.

This would certainly make Kane walking into her home even more surprising to her, but that he does. Still, something is certainly off about it. He doesn't feel well, and he is rushed to a hospital after alling into a seizure. Here, Lena meets Dr. Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who tells Lena about the Shimmer, how the scientists have "many theories, few facts" regarding the mysterious entity. Is it religious in nature? Extra-terrestrial? No one knows. Kane was part of team that tried to find out; they failed. He's in good company, as everyone and everything they have sent in to try and discover answers has never returned. Perhaps the environment kills them, or perhaps they go crazy and kill each other. Lena, determined to find an answer to what ails her lover, joins Ventress and other scientists: Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson). She pointedly does not tell them about her connection to Kane, fearing it would "complicate" things.     

It's a real, real shame that a film with such great female roles for great female actors has turned out so dull. In Ex Machina, women also had a majority of the roles, but it felt exploitative at times. Not so here. Thompson, though, is a real marvel in the movie. Her performance is so unlike her recent work in films like Creed and Thor: Ragnorok. She doesn't do a whole lot to transform into this character, a shy but clever individual, but the subtle choices she's made make her almost unrecognizable. I was a little more disappointed in the performances of Leigh and Rodriguez, who both overdo things, mostly in different ways. Portman is mostly fine, yet her being cast is another example of whitewashing in Hollywood, as the character in the original book series is described as Asian. (Additionally, Leigh's character is described as half-Native American.)

The Shimmer is like a macabre version of Neverland, a state park with a lush, green forest surrounded by a transparent layer that looks similar to oil mixing with water. Flowers have mutated into gorgeous new species. But almost immediately, the characters start to lose their memories. They've been there for days, and yet they can remember almost nothing. Adding to the Neverland quality is giant crocodiles, but these ones happen to have teeth similar to sharks.

Annihilation certainly requires a lot more patience than Ex Machine does. It's a lot sillier, too. The motivation of Lena's character to go on such a mission is too difficult to believe. Like Sam Neill or Jeff Goldblum before her, it is not plausible for her to accept. This movie is more Prometheus than Alien, and yet it thinks the reverse is true. The characters certainly seem like they're straight out of the former, as they don't feel they need protective masks when walking around the Shimmer. Garland and team try the whole less-is-more approach, and yet it often does not pay off. There are horror moments that are not frightening in the slightest, action scenes that aren't thrilling in the slightest, and the whole thing feels like it would work better as a spooky short story written by someone in middle school. Is Annihilation pretentious? Most likely. Boring? Definitely. Ultimately, there is not a single exciting or interesting moment throughout this film. Annihilation will challenge you to think, but who would be inspired to engage in such inquiry about a movie like this? 



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