Annihilation (2018)

★★★★★

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Science fiction, at its best, is about bending the rules just enough to expand the mind. Refreshing the realm of possibility through intellectual pursuit. Often, drawn against the backdrop of humanity, be it human suffering, exploration, or endurance. In Annihilation, it’s a bit of all three. The first, painted across the expression of just about every character we meet, from Benedict Wong’s frustrated interrogator to Natalie Portman’s uncertain solider-biologist-spouse. The second, on both a physical and metaphysical level, as we watch a group of female scientists explore an ever-changing realm while debating its ever-changing properties. And the third, endurance, a necessary attribute displayed by the quintet throughout their navigation of this new world, as well as the one left behind.

Portman plays Lena, a biologist specialising in the behaviour of cells, who is surprised by the sudden reappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). An army specialist, Kane was presumed dead by Lena who lived with the weight of his vanishing, and more, for at least a year. Circumstance lands her in Area X where she learns about her partner’s exploits in The Shimmer, a creeping electromagnetic fortress with rainbow walls and a penchant for harming those who enter. Enchanted by the unknown, Lena joins four other scientists, physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and geologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), on a fact-finding mission inside.

The film blends dread with intrigue, often evoking that feeling of dangerous wonder, where you know you’re watching something uneasy unfold but can’t take your eyes off the screen. This is Alex Garland’s second feature as director, following Ex Machina, and his grasp of tone is already excellent. Annihilation is less clinical than Ex Machina, more subservient to the fluidity of nature, but it exudes that same sense of simmering tension. We feel it from the beginning, the tension increasing as the five women enter The Shimmer embodying that sense of dangerous wonder, fully aware their survival chances are slim. (They enter anyway.) Self-destruction drives the film and there are many moments of violence and anguish, but there are also discreet moments of hope. Maybe ‘beauty’ is the wrong word (though the film does look stunning, another reason to be angry at Paramount for not giving it a theatrical run here in the UK), but characters find relief amongst all the despair and regret, and we do too.

Thus, The Shimmer is a bi-functional venue: A faux refuge, a place where our scientific group go to escape the woes of reality or to chase answers, both with varied results, and also a Rubik’s Cube that seeks to change the face of physics and natural order. The narrative itself is fluid, morphing from present to past through flashbacks with no clear time-stamp, designed to further flesh out the emotional states of those on-screen. In and of itself, these flashbacks don’t defy cinematic convention, but by interspersing them at various points along the group’s excursion, Garland brings The Shimmer’s bending of natural order beyond the fourth wall.

The film owes a little to the horror genre, certain visual moments capturing that hair-raising creepiness common in the genre greats — I’m thinking of the way the camera foregrounds and backgrounds people and space in a certain sequence towards the end (reminiscent of Mike Gioulakis and David Robert Mitchell’s efforts in It Follows). Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow contribute to similar effect via a metallic, invasive score that climaxes with a now infamous four-note sound that unsettles and compels in almost equal measure. You really do have to hear it.

I alluded to Annihilation’s Netflix-only release here in the UK, which was a consequence of a dispute between Garland, supported by producer Scott Rudin, and Paramount bosses who felt the film was both too complex for audiences and that Lena lacked sufficient moral clarity. Conversely, it is to the film’s credit that we have a female protagonist who isn’t vilified for poor decision-making, and whose greyness is an enriching attribute. Garland’s screenplay, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, is challenging, but not any more than Eric Heisserer’s work on Arrival, which more than quadrupled its production budget at the box office. Portman, by the way, is brilliant in the role, never overplaying her character’s internal heartache. She isn’t lovable but we’re with her every step of the way, which is a credit to both actor and filmmaker. Her partners in expedition are also great, particularly Gina Rodriguez as Anya.

It all leads to a unique conclusion, a final half hour that draws a line in the sand, challenging another filmmaker to conjure up something as enthralling, as spooky, as wonderfully disconcerting. I hesitate to deify a film I’ve only just seen and haven’t had the chance to fully digest, but Kubrick’s 2001 springs to mind as far as third act feats go. Garland downright refuses to answer your questions — there must at least three “don’t knows” uttered in the final 10 minutes — and whether or not this delights you or makes you tear your hair out will depend on what type of moviegoer you are: Someone who loves mystery, or someone who needs definitive truth. (Psst! Either is fine.) That may be the greatest thing about Annihilation, that it implores you to think about it, and then watch it again, and then think about it some more, and then watch it again. Timeless? A sci-fi classic? Maybe.

Director: Alex Garland

Rating: 15

Runtime: 1hr 55mins

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Science fiction

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson

Images ©: Paramount Pictures, Netflix

Ex Machina (2015)

★★★★

Ex Machina PosterDirector: Alex Garland

Release Date: January 21st, 2015 (UK); April 24th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Drama; Mystery; Science fiction

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander

One moment programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is sitting at his desk, face illuminated by the glaring light of his work computer. The next he is strapped inside a helicopter, flying over an ice age and landing in Jurassic Park. The technological feat awaiting him would likely put dino DNA revitalisers to shame. If not, his target locale is certainly about to outmatch Isla Nublar on the ominous atmosphere front. See, Caleb has won the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to spend a week working alongside his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at the latter’s remote outpost.

Nathan is a sharp-minded billionaire, which is plain to see upon reaching his scientific base: polished surfaces, gleaming windows, furniture positioned perfectly. Mirrors are plentiful, perhaps incorporated to feed the CEO’s macho demeanour (physical exertion is a favourite), and conjure up artificial reflections of those looking into them — more on that shortly. As Nathan, Isaac evokes detachment yet somehow also total involvement; he is knowledgeable, not only scientifically, but anthropologically too. He pokes fun at Caleb while asking all of the right (leading) questions to support his manifesto — for one, he convinces the out-of-sync employee to sign an autocratic non-disclosure form.

At once a beer-guzzling waster who speaks in Ghostbusters gags when drunk and a piercing intellect who is hard to pin down, the character benefits from Isaacs’ mysterious approach. Caleb has been invited over to test Nathan’s newest creation: an android called Ava (Alicia Vikander). A near instant iciness develops between both guys, purposefully invoked by Nathan and anxiously accepted by Caleb, and it only gets worse as the experiment progresses. Test sessions between Caleb and Ava are signified by creepy, black title cards bred from the hard-edged Alien school of font. These interactions begin innocently enough, though the tables subtly turn when Ava asks her examiner about his love life (“Is your status single?”). Caleb giggles accordingly.

Vikander is brilliant — she moves with an odd mechanical smoothness, and glides with inhuman grace. Her tone is at once impersonal and enrapturing. Metaphorically speaking, her existence embodies humankind’s attraction towards technological achievement and how said attraction has been, and will continue to be, massively detrimental (atomic bombs are mentioned). Writer-director Alexander Garland uses Nathan as a centrepiece for humankind’s petulance: at one point Nathan informs us he made Ava simply because he could. It is also worth pointing out the excellent work of Gleeson, who juggles both the need to discover and the fear of causing a fuss with pristine awkwardness.

Caleb doesn’t know how to process his attraction, dismissing it as a false consequence of the preconditions set by Nathan. “This is your insecurity talking, this is not your intellect,” replies the CEO with a dose of glee. Whereas earlier test sessions between Caleb and Ava would show the former on the left and the latter on the right, cinematographer Rob Hardy flips the two in later sessions. All of a sudden, he is part-AI and she is part-human. The artificial textures are so genuine looking they incur an uncanny valley vibe — the skin, the limbs, and the eyes all seem real, but we know they aren’t. We see all of this through Caleb’s gaze and Caleb, unsurprisingly, is bewildered and amazed, his sanity in depletion.

Garland delivers an indie outing that looks more mature than the norm and one that seems to carry more purpose too. It shares the same tense underbelly as Kelly Reichardt’s Eco-thriller Night Moves, only Garland’s film doesn’t lose steam halfway through, tension superbly maintained at the expense of clear-cut characterisation. We never truly understand anybody’s motive — how much does Nathan actually know about Ava? How much does Ava actually know about the programme? The entire film is like a sinister, sublime chess match formulated entirely by Nathan, and Caleb is the piece being played.

Dewy, misty surroundings denote total seclusion. A haunting score heightens bouts of inevitable eeriness (inevitable, but terrifically construed), particularly during a spying session. Even sweeter musical inflections, like an Explosions in the Sky sounding addition, are laden with menace. Every so often blood red warning lights repaint the scientific centre as a doomed spaceship — Event Horizon springs to mind, or perhaps Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, another Garland-penned film. It looks and feels like proper science fiction: you don’t know what is around the corner, but you do know whatever it is will hold secrets primed to test your mind and probably freak you out.

Considering all I’ve written, you might see Ex Machina as an old school genre movie: dotted with expositional speeches that explore futuristic themes; plans smartly laid out and then executed; tension constantly simmering; characters attempting to outsmart each other. Even though it falters slightly at the very, very last hurdle — though one wonders where else the story could have conceivably gone — smart sci-fi is a treat, and this will test your brain in the most engaging manner.

Ex Machina - Isaac & Gleeson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: A24Universal Studios