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

Top 8 Films of 2015 (January-June)

In life it’s always worth taking a moment to stop and think. Before crossing the road, for example. During an exam. Just as you’re about to send out those inflammatory tweets. And especially when the cinematic year reaches its midpoint. At half-time, sports teams indulge in a studious team talk. This is our half-time team talk. A period of transitory reflection. Or, plainly, a great excuse to muster up a celebratory list singling out the best films released between January and June. Besides, if Mark Kermode does it, it’s worth doing.

I’ve decided not to include films released last year in the US. As such, the rankings won’t incorporate any of the 2015 Oscar crop – Birdman and Foxcatcher would definitely have made the cut otherwise. Though released this year in the UK, those are technically 2014 films. And so, from the great to the greater, let’s get going.

8. Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice PosterIt is very likely that your face will resemble Joaquin Phoenix’s poster expression by the end of Inherent Vice, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film has a woozy magnetism that occasionally threatens to blind, but Phoenix’s aloof performance as an oddball 1970s detective keeps us attentive throughout (though probably not wholly aware). Paul Thomas Anderson is a really interesting director and this is another really interesting, if frequently bonkers, journey. Recurrent collaborator Robert Elswit provides hazy mood-setting cinematography. Josh Brolin also shows up bearing the flattest haircut in the history of cinema.

7. Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman PosterAn amalgamation of Kick Ass’ thumping comic violence and Bond’s narrative flow, Kingsman: The Secret Service is an at times dazzling action-comedy. You do occasionally get the sense writer/director Matthew Vaughn’s errant imagination is overruling his common sense, but it is this exuberant mentality that funds the film’s enjoyability. Colin Firth ditches the stuttering king’s speech for something more poised and abrasive, while his fresh on the scene co-star Taron Egerton delivers a breakout performance. Firth also engages in a Quicksilver-esque slow motion church battle that has to be seen to be believed.

6. Jurassic World

Jurassic World PosterAs it continues to chomp its way through the global box office, Jurassic World is fast becoming one of the biggest films of all time in economic terms. Colin Trevorrow’s dinosaur delight is also a nostalgic powerhouse, respectful in its acknowledgement of Steven Spielberg’s breathtaking original but also geared towards a new generation of young, expectant cinemagoers. Underfed screenplay and character problems aside (no outright disasters), this is genuinely enjoyable cinema with a few spine-tingling moments to really savour. Listen out for the reverberations of John Williams’ glorious score, and keep an eye on that flare.

5. It Follows

It Follows PosterDavid Robert Mitchell’s second feature gained a lot of positive traction through word of mouth and subsequently found its way into cinemas nationwide across the UK and US. It Follows opens atop a barrage of tension, most of which the film never loses. There’s a vintage sheen at the fore, broadcast exquisitely via Mike Gioulakis’ rich cinematography, though we never actually find out when the movie is set (adding to the bizarre and unsettling goings-on). Maika Munroe is brilliant as the anti-scream queen in a patiently eerie horror outing that has more in common with John Hughes than it does Rob Zombie.

4. Ex Machina

Ex Machina PosterAnother wonderfully paced piece, Ex Machina manages to be both pristinely clinical and oddly ambiguous. Alex Garland, whose screenwriting backlog includes the stunning Sunshine, makes his directorial debut: a sci-fi mind-jolter set almost entirely within the shiny walls of a remote retreat. The director uses the element of mystery to great effect – character motives are never wholly clear. Oscar Isaac is pally yet deceitful, feeding Domhnall Gleeson’s inquisitive suspicions. Alicia Vikander also superbly captures the uncanny valley-like quality of a humanoid robot.

3. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers Age of Ultron Poster 2Much like Jurassic World the second Avengers get-together suffers in the screenplay department. However, here it’s a case of over-complication as opposed to a lack of perceived originality. Age of Ultron isn’t difficult to follow, there’s simply a bit too much going on. And you can understand why: these characters are tremendous fun to be around, full of inevitable persiflage, and by now the actors have clicked as a collective unit. As Hawkeye, Jeremy Renner finally gets something meaningful to do and he does it with emotional gravitas. Joss Whedon’s final Marvel bow is one of the studios’ best so far.

2. Girlhood

Girlhood PosterGirlhood, a French independent drama that hones in on one girl’s social and cultural maturity, is quite the opposite. The film is compelling to no end, aided in abundance by lead actor Karidja Touré’s standoffish performance. The first time performer really is a joy to watch and a miraculous casting find. Crystel Fournier’s stylish cinematography contrasts thematically with an otherwise gritty, urban environment, highlighting the difference between dreams and reality. The film also hosts the year’s best scene so far: a stunningly shot group dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” that you’ll watch in a state of emotional fluctuation.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road Poster 2Comparing the merits of a low-key European drama and a barnstorming Aussie dystopian epic is a pretty thankless task, but Mad Max: Fury Road just about edges top spot. After a thirty year break, George Miller delivers his best franchise instalment yet. Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy share the same type of niggling chemistry you’d expect to see in the middle of a high-intensity, life or death vehicular war. As Imperator Furiosa Theron is bullish and powerful, but the fact that she has a heart is why we care so much. Miller’s penchant for practical effects works a treat, helping to signify a seminal moment in action cinema.

Images credit: IMP Awards