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

The Hateful Eight (2016)

★★★★

The Hateful Eight PosterDirector: Quentin Tarantino

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 8th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Crime; Drama

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight almost feels like a career denouement. Fittingly, its structure loosely resembles that of the director’s inaugural feature, Reservoir Dogs, though experience has clearly softened his haste. One can imagine a young Tarantino, exuberance overriding patience, penning a screenplay too snappy to tempt overstaying its welcome (at less than 100 minutes, it is his shortest film). With over 20 successful years to his name and having perfected his incomparable style — arthouse blockbusters — snappy screenplays no longer have a place in the auteur’s workshop. The Hateful Eight reflects just that, seemingly to the point of no return.

Post-Civil-War tensions are rife in what is essentially a courtroom western. In non-revelatory terms, let’s run through some of the prosecutors (after all, Tarantino’s screenplay does the best descriptive job). John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is pure Americana, the type who gets glossy-eyed reading a letter written by President Abraham Lincoln. He is transporting criminal Daisy Domergue to Red Rock where she will be hanged — Jennifer Jason Leigh, oddly enough, increasingly channels The Breakfast Club’s Allison with each disconcerting grin and her general weirdness. Along the way they meet Major Marquis Warren, practical and thoughtful, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

He hitches a ride after some toing and froing, as does Chris Mannix who the trio find flailing around frantically in the brewing blizzard. Mannix, the prospective Sheriff of Red Rock, is weaselly and the most out-there of the entire bunch. He is played by Walton Goggins, the film’s MVP on the humour front. Tim Roth (Oswaldo Mobray), Michael Madsen (Joe Gage), Bruce Dern (General Sanford Smithers), and Demián Bichir (Bob) are already huddled up in Minnie’s Haberdashery when the travelling troupe arrive seeking shelter from the storm. Turns out the snow would have been a safer bet.

This rabble, though most engaging, are a noxious bunch. They use “during wartime” as a reductive excuse for past misdemeanours when really those misdemeanours were, and are, a way of life. “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice,” muses Roth’s Mobray with ominous foreboding. Much has been made about the treatment of Domergue, and it’s plain to see why: she gets throttled often and without much in the way of retaliatory action. The characters are almost universally vile, Domergue included; the abuse is not funny nor, crucially, do I think it is meant to be. It didn’t offend me (the N word is again invoked with consistency) but others mightn’t be so kind.

For around an hour and a half, you get the feeling Tarantino and co. are taking the material seriously, so much so that those doing the striking gain a nasty reputation. But when the spaghetti violence takes form later on, that conscientious veneer ceases to exist and gory absurdity reigns supreme. Perhaps justifiably, given the caricature-esque group involved. At this point the violence is played, at least to an extent, for laughs and shock value — although it is worth noting most of the amusing moments arrive via verbiage. Ruth, for instance, intentionally has the worst comeback patter: “My pistol plays a tune… Domergue’s Death March.”

Jackson gets the best of the dialogue and subsequently repays Tarantino’s faith. He delivers a whodunit monologue with such devious joy; you can just about see the actor licking his lips as he succumbs to the satisfying taste of the words rumbling around his mouth. On the topic of audio, Ennio Morricone delivers another resplendent score, thoroughly grandiose and absolutely worthy of the occasion: his return to the genre for the first time since Buddy Goes West (1981). Galloping horses carry a distinctly cinematic sound and Tarantino, a movie lover, knows it. He also knows and cherishes the woody authenticity of film as a shooting medium, making Robert Richardson’s immaculate visual serving a welcome non-surprise.

There are times, and this is true of all Tarantino outings apart from the aforementioned Reservoir Dogs, when you find yourself actively egging conversations towards their conclusion. This is especially applicable in “Chapter One” of The Hateful Eight, when Warren is attempting to nab a seat in Ruth’s convoy. It might be a genuine attempt to flesh out key characters or simply a matter of self-indulgence, or possibly a bit of both. Tarantino writes and writes, and then writes some more, and when you see one of his films you just have to accept that. Because when he gets it right — and let’s face it, he does get it right quite a lot — even Aaron Sorkin must look on with a hint of jealousy.

Having said that, there isn’t much depth beyond the obvious cultural and political divisions (which are so plainly invoked they barely register as thoughtful). The certainty of death manifests via blood-trails in the snow — these rose markings could also represent the importance of evidence on the path to justice, though I might be clutching at straws with that one. Tarantino makes it work, however, by subbing in rich characters and the unrepentant screenplay I have already alluded to. The film exists in an era that demands people declare their backstory upon meeting a stranger and those variably truthful backstories are thoroughly enticing to hear.

A chapter in the film’s second act expertly refreshes proceedings just when you think the film might be turning stagnant and a tad repetitive. “The name of the game is patience.” It is true; patience welcomes more positives than negatives in The Hateful Eight. Quentin Tarantino is the sort of director who would rather swim across an ocean than take a speedboat in order to prove his point. You’ll know by now whether or not you enjoy that sort of storytelling. Regardless, there is something charming about a film that keeps you in the cinema a little longer than necessary — especially if said film has a lot going for it.

The Hateful Eight - Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Bruce Dern

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company