Skip to main content

We are disintegrating. Our bodies as fast as our minds. Can’t you feel it?

Annihilation
(2018)

(SPOILERS) It seems I’m forever destined to miss what others find so remarkable about Alex Garland’s work (I was also the one who didn’t love Ex Machina). Annihilation left me mostly cold while most appear to have done little else but rave about it. Tarkovsky’s Stalker has been invoked, but they’re chalk and cheese, one meditative and elusive, the other transparent and over-didactic. I will say this for the writer-director-auteur, though: he’s finally made a movie where the third act is superior to the preceding portion, even if this time it’s qualitatively inverted. And, he still can’t escape his Apocalypse Now obsession.


The success or otherwise of Annihilation for you will likely come down to whether your find the groundwork for Garland’s ultimate trip provocative and his characters stimulating. Unfortunately, the latter are mostly paper thin, rudimentary types – “all damaged goods” – fostered reductive issues so as to explain away their fates. Those fates – of Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novtny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson) – vary in method and intensity, the properties of The Shimmer operating as a variant on The Empire Strikes Back’s “You only meet what you bring in with you” Jungian tree, only with a whole lot more on-the-nose exposition courtesy of Bendict Wong’s scientist throwing us out of what might been a more immersive experience with join-the-dots questions every five minutes; Lena (Natalie Portman) even helpfully wraps their demises in a “I had to come back. I’m not sure any of them did” bow.



Ventress: A religious event. An ET event. A higher dimension. We have many theories and few facts.


There are subtler touches in here that might have worked in a more nebulous movie – the Ouroboros tattoo that lends itself to various arms of those entering the Shimmer, the bear one on Kane’s (Oscar Isaac) chest, suggestive of the creature that at one point is belowing Cass’ alarming scream (again, helpfully explained, this time by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Ventress –  I think as she was dying part of her mind joined part of the creature that was killing her” – so no room for ambiguity there) and that the house they arrive at is a representation of Lena’s. But then, it’s been laid out on a plate that this force is instinctively replicating the architecture of visitors’ minds.


Lena explains to Lomax “I don’t think it wanted anything… It mirrored me. I attacked it. I’m not sure it even knew I was there… It wasn’t destroying. It was changing everything. It was making something new”. The only ambiguity here is the personal ending between Kane (Garland with his homaging again, this time to Alien, where the namesake character is also irrevocably changed by an ET force) and Lena (“You aren’t Kane… are you?”: “I don’t think so”). Itself a more intimate version of the ending of John Carpenter’s The Thing, in which the exact nature of who has survived and in what state is left undefined (apparently, in an earlier draft of the screenplay, it’s clear that Lena’s copy blew herself up, which is as it would appear here, but it’s at least a shade more interesting if it’s possible that both are copies; instead, the implication is that she has been altered by the Shimmer, whereas he has been entirely replaced. Either way, with the “overtly” established Shimmer miraculously destroyed, Kane and Lena will presumably take on the business of engulfing the planet by stealth).


Like The Thing, Annihilation is an end of the world movie (“I don’t know what it wants. Or if it wants. But it will grow until it encompasses everything”) but unlike that film, a remake that entirely has its own identity, Garland gets bogged down in his references. How else to explain an earlier scene in which three of the scientists are tied to a chair while the paranoid other presides over them, a scene that culminates in a monstrous other intruding on the quartet? Or the mutations and self-immolations suggestive of Event Horizon (in particular, the video footage)? Or the theme of memory and love lost (Solaris overlaid onto Garland’s Stalker template)? And that, yes, Kane is essentially Kurtz, with Lena his Willard heading up the river/Shimmer to find what became of him.


And being Garland, Annihilation is much more visceral than cerebral – look at how he ended Sunshine, for goodness’ sake - while Tarkovsky lingered between the spaces of his characters, Garland delivers leaden exposition and rote dialogue amid a first hour that’s all-too familiar gun-toting mission dynamics (of which, Lena proves to be super-capable in a kind of Arnie-commissioned-rewrite way; she’s a scientist who was also formerly in the military), with little beyond the production design to really mark it out as something different.



Kane: God doesn’t make mistakes. It’s somewhat key to the whole being a god thing.
Lena: I’m pretty sure he does.
Kane: You know he’s listening right now?


The problem I have with Garland is his aspiration towards being something more than that, which always outreaches his grasp, exposing him as ill-equipped. Annihilation is pseudo-intellectual, vaguely philosophical and not really especially deep or penetrating; as with his earlier work, it bears the demeanour of the student philosopher, one who has arrived where he is through taking some really cool drugs, man: a mind that sees hallucinogens as the ultimate gateway. Which is obviously why he ends with a 2001 trip experience in the final reel.


Which I liked much more than the preceding material, but even here, the inability to resist vocalising Annihilation’s themes punctures its potential (Garland even lays out his stall in interviews, breaking the premise down to “how hard it is to be a person”, which as profundities go, isn’t exactly breaking new ground). There’s some striking imagery throughout the picture, but there’s also much that is rather over-telegraphed and heavy-handed, most notably the glass that refracts the conjoining fingers of Lena and Kane in an early scene (“The Shimmer is a prism but it refracts everything – animal DNA, plant DNA, all DNA”).


In the final reel, at least, there’s a greater uniformity of approach, even given the variable quality of the CGI. In particular, the human topiaries and the dance of Lena’s mirror self as the former comes to realise what is occurring. There are also some cute moments such as the mutating manner in which the “infection” is passed on from person to person, or Kane instructing his double to find Lena (kind of cool, but in a very, very Garland “cool reveal” way). Under the Skin sprang to mind on several occasions, but as a less complimentary reference; Jonathan Glazer is entirely comfortable leaving meaning unspoken or unresolved. Garland, even when he’s looking for an open ending, wraps everything up.


Still, Annihilation appears to have done its job of cementing Garland’s rep as a fiercely cerebral writer. And unlike The Cloverfield Paradox, its warm reception will likely do him the power of good through all that Netflix exposure. For me, I find myself ironically in the position of preferring Garland’s earlier, more juvenile experiments, flawed as they are (28 Days Later, Sunshine) than this self-conscious and under-nourished mature phase.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

You’re a slut with a snake in your mouth. Die!

Mickey One (1965)
(SPOILERS) Apparently this early – as in, two years before the one that made them both highly sought-after trailblazers of “New Hollywood” – teaming between Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn has undergone a re-evaluation since its initial commercial and critical drubbing. I’m not sure about all that. Mickey One still seems fatally half-cocked to me, with Penn making a meal of imitating the stylistic qualities that came relatively naturally – or at least, Gallically – to the New Wave.

They seem to be attracted to your increasing nudeness.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was put in mind of Shazam! watching Pokémon Detective Pikachu, another 2019 tentpole that somewhat underperformed based on expectations. Not particularly due to any plot resemblance, but because both movies fall apart under the weight of an overblown and underwhelming finale. In the case of Shazam! that may be more damaging to its prospective sequels (if they keep the team of super-adult kids), whereas Detective Pikachu will simply have to struggle with a whole heap of unnecessary expositional baggage attempting to imbue the proceedings with emotional resonance.