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

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

Can you close off your feelings so you don’t get crippled by the moral ambiguity of your violent actions?

Spider-Man Worst to Best

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…

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.

Empire 30:  Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:

What, you're going to walk in there like it's the commie Disneyland or something?

Stranger Things 3 (2019)
(SPOILERS) It’s very clear by this point that Stranger Things isn’t going to serve up any surprises. It’s operating according to a strict formula, one requiring the opening of the portal to the Upside Down every season and an attendant demagorgon derivative threat to leak through, only to be stymied at the last moment by our valorous team. It’s an ‘80s sequel cycle through and through, and if you’re happy with it functioning exclusively on that level, complete with a sometimes overpowering (over)dose of nostalgia references, this latest season will likely strike you as just the ticket.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …