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

Creed (2016)

★★★★

Creed PosterDirector: Ryan Coogler

Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (US); January 15th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Sport

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

“Adonis got into a fight today” are some of the first words we hear in Creed, Ryan Coogler’s Rocky revitaliser, and you expect them to be words the film will live by. After all, when we first meet Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, son of heavyweight boxing legend Apollo Creed, he is in a young offender’s institution and suffering from some serious anger issues. Plus it’s a boxing movie, right? Boxers are big brutes, right? Well, wrong on both counts. Creed isn’t a boxing movie, it is a movie about companionship and love and legacy, and Donnie certainly ain’t a big brute, but rather a fairly normal guy whose lineage and hard-working attitude have afforded him abnormal talent.

The next time we see him fighting is 17 years later in a seedy, smoky Mexican club and he wins, though a terrific edit cuts the celebrations short by sending us back over to the US and into a corporate meeting. Unlike Rocky, this is not a rags to riches story (eventual opponent “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) makes that clear at a press conference later on). Donnie is intellectually sound and he lives in a plush home having been adopted by his father’s widow, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad). There is a non-boxing path paved out for him should he want to take it.

But Donnie has a problem coming to terms with Apollo’s legacy. He doesn’t want the plush house paid for — at least in part — by the father who he feels abandoned him, yet Donnie admires Apollo’s talent and he absolutely wants a shot at the sport that conquered his father. Unfortunately, nobody in Los Angeles will train him; Donnie won’t use his dad’s name therefore trainers simply see him as an erratic wannabe. So the bum does what any boxer worth their gloves would do: shut up shop, move to Philadelphia, and seek out the man who went 15 official rounds with Apollo Creed (twice) and won (twice, really).

“You are your father’s son,” says a defeated Mary Anne. And he is as far as determination goes. But Donnie doesn’t want to be; he is haunted by Apollo’s lingering shadow — quite literally too, as posters paint the walls of just about every gym he visits. There is an odd attempt to challenge the media’s obsession with legacy-tarnishing celebrities that feels too abrupt to have any impact, but otherwise Coogler and Aaron Covington’s screenplay is excellent, only briefly tapping into nostalgia when it is unavoidable.

This gives the cast a clear platform to carve their own creations, especially Michael B. Jordan who might as well work with Coogler for the rest of time if the duo are always going to be this good together. He has a ton of charisma, not the loud or arrogant type, but the natural sort that convinces audiences to invest their emotion. The relationship between Donnie and Rocky is central to the film’s triumph and it beats with such a genuine heart — a handful of their interactions bear so much nuance and truth that your lip might threaten to quiver.

Rocky thinks his understudy is a “better” man than he because the well-educated Donnie knows a bit about stuff, but the Italian Stallion knows a bit more about trouncing the odds. At one point the pair are offered a potentially tricky fight and Donnie instantly approves, his mind already focused on weight loss. But Rocky knows the offer might have come too soon for an inexperienced Donnie and, more importantly, he knows it isn’t about cutting weight. It is about the fight game and playing said game with a healthy balance of honour and smarts.

Stallone is Rocky, but Rocky is older. His irrepressible yammering has quietened in light of Adrian’s passing and his retirement, yet you get the sense there is a part of him still stuck in the 70s (an iCloud gag just about authenticates that). Likewise, Maryse Alberti captures Philly essentially as it was in the original Rocky. Wearing its best wintry coat, Eagles-town revs up for another bout of fight preparation: icy breath; long-distance jogging; chicken chases; grey tracksuits and woolly hats. It’s all there. Meanwhile Rocky, eyes still pointing out mistakes and mind still working out tactics, is a tired sight physically.

Another integral relationship is the romantic one between Donnie and fellow apartment dweller Bianca (Tessa Thompson). The nature of the franchise beast suggests comparison is an inevitability and while Donnie and Bianca’s companionship is not as charmingly spontaneous as Rocky and Adrian’s, it really is quite lovely. This time she is the outgoing one and he is more reserved, traits reflected in conversations between the two: whereas Donnie’s trepidation is based on a self-created manifestation of doubt, Bianca, living with progressive hearing loss, has something concrete to fear. So she sings for a living, and he should box without inhibition.

Southpaw, despite its creaky storytelling, got the in-ring sequences spot on and Creed is similarly successful. The casting of actual heavyweight fighters — Tony Bellew is a world title challenger and Andre Ward, playing another knockout artist, is a world champion — affords the fight scenes proper pedigree, especially when someone like Bellew is placed in a familiar HBO environment. The actual boxing isn’t gung ho which also funds the realistic aesthetic and the training montages are as good as any in recent memory; buoyed on by another exhilarating score, they have oomph and momentum.

You can practically see the weight on Stallone’s ageing shoulders as he juggles Rocky’s search for another shot at glory and his uncertainty over how to handle Donnie. It is an uncertainty born out of caring too much. And we buy it, unconditionally. Donnie is the boxing son Rocky never had, the son of his fiercest foe and fondest friend, the son who has re-awoken the fight in cinema’s greatest ever fighter.

Creed - Sylvester Stallone & Michael B. Jordan

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros. Pictures