AnnihilationReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/22/18 13:38:38
Having already established himself as a novelist with the cult classic “The Beach” and as a screenwriter by penning the likes of “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” and adaptations of “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd,” Alex Garland made his directorial debut with 2015’s “Ex Machina,” a story set in the not-too-distant future about a programmer (Domnhall Gleeson) sent by his technological genius boss (Oscar Isaac) to administer the Turing test to a new and advanced form of artificial intelligence, a beautiful humanoid robot (Alicia Vikander). With its combination of startlingly effective visual effects, a trippy screenplay that served both as a enormously effective genre narrative a mind-bending meditation of what it means to be human and strong performances from the three leads, the film was celebrated as one of the best of the year and it even went on to become a modest commercial success as well. More importantly, it immediately established Garland as a filmmaker to watch and made one curious as to see what kind of provocation he might offer up next.And yet, to judge from the way that Paramount Pictures has been handling it, one might come to the conclusion that Garland’s eagerly anticipated follow-up, “Annihilation,” was yet another case of the dreaded sophomore jinx. In adapting the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, Garland was working with a bigger budget and a cast featuring the likes of Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Isaac and seemed to have everything going for him. Alas, it is reported that after a poorly received test screening, one of the chief financiers at Paramount demanded a number of wholesale change to the film in order to make it more marketable—things like making Portman’s character more overtly likable and sympathetic and, oh yeah, changing the ending entirely. However, producer Scott Rudin had final cut and elected to side with Garland and refused to make the changes. In response, Paramount, which had recently suffered a prolonged cold streak at the box office with such oddball fare as “mother!,” “Suburbicon” and “Downsizing,” decided to cut their losses by electing to release the film theatrically only in the U.S. and China and selling the rights to everywhere else to Netflix, where it would start streaming a mere 17 days after hitting the big screen—a move that would have seemed like a vote of no confidence under normal circumstances and which seemed like an admission of total disaster considering the studio’s recent decision to scrap the theatrical release of the genuinely awful “The Cloverfield Paradox” entirely and drop it on Netflix only a couple of hours after announcing it via a Super Bowl ad.
With its halfhearted promotional campaign and the weird decision to keep it from many critics until the last possible second, “Annihilation” will almost certainly end up faring poorly from a purely commercial perspective. To be fair, however, it is not entirely a sure thing that it would have done much better if it was being distributed by a studio that was fully committed to it. This is the kind of crazily audacious filmmaking that is destined to split audiences between those who will deem it a masterpiece and those consider it a ridiculously pretentious and confusing mess. (It makes perfect sense that it would be distributed by the same studio that made “mother!” since it is easily the most instantly divisive studio film to come along since that one bewildered viewers last fall.) At the promo screening that I attended, members of the latter were certainly in evidence—there were occasional bursts of laughter from those unwilling to go with some of its wilder conceits and the chatter in the hallway afterwards seemed to lean more towards the perplexed. This reaction is not that surprising as “Annihilation,” despite the star power and budget, is not the kind of easily digested mass-market item that one goes to merely to kill a couple of hours. However, I can only hope that as time passes, those who were sorting derisively or scratching their heads will eventually come around and see the film as I did—as a conceptually ambitious and stunningly executed sci-fi film along the lines of such masterworks as “2001,” “Solaris,” “Blade Runner,” “Dark City" and “Inception” that will continue to live on long after today’s current chart-toppers have been long forgotten.
As the story opens, a meteor crashes somewhere on the American coastline near a lighthouse and begins emitting a strange and gradually expanding bubble-like barrier that has been dubbed “The Shimmer.” In trying to get to the bottom of what is inside the Shimmer over the course of the next three years, government psychologist Dr. Ventress (Leigh) has sent in numerous teams but none of them have ever been seen again nor have they managed to transmit any information regarding what is happening inside. As it turns out, one person, military man Kane (Isaac), has somehow managed to not only escape the Shimmer but has somehow managed to inexplicably return home to his wife, biologist and former soldier Lena (Portman) after being gone for 12 months. The reunion does not last long and Lena soon finds herself at a government installation just outside the Shimmer where Ventress is planning to lead up her own mission inside along with fellow scientists Cass (Tuva Novotny), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Anya (Gina Rodriguez). Needing to know what happened to her husband, Lena insists on coming along as well, although only Ventress is aware of her personal connection to what is going on.
What occurs from this point is best left for viewers to discover on their own. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t take the women long to realize that something is amiss—they seem to have lost several days without having a single memory of them, plants consist of radically different blooms on the same stems and branches and when an enormous alligator makes a memorable appearance, it appears to have the kind of teeth normally found in sharks. Lena and the others are working on the impression that either something inside the Shimmer killed the previous teams or that they went crazy and ended up killing each other. The truth, inevitably, is a lot more complicated than that and even when they eventually come across the explanation for what is going on around them, that information only serves to muddy things up further than to help them figure out a way to combat the threat of the Shimmer, which begins to reduce their ranks one by one. It all leads to the moment when the remaining members of the group reach the lighthouse that is the epicenter and confront what is inside in one of the strangest final acts in contemporary genre cinema.
Having not read the original books, I cannot say to what degree that Garland has stuck to them in adapting “Annihilation” (though I understand that there are many key differences, starting with the fact that he adapted the first book before the subsequent volumes were published). However, there is never the sense that you get while watching a lot of adaptations of novels these days—especially those taken from multi-volume sagas—that the filmmakers are merely recreating passages from the book in a manner that could not possibly upset the built-in fan base. This is one of those rare sci-fi films where it seems as if anything can happen at any moment and that there is never the sense of some pre-ordained narrative thread pulling things along. Sure, there are some moments that will seem familiar to fans of this type of storytelling but in this case, they don’t drive the story as much as lull viewers into a state of calm and complacency before once again leaping into the truly freaky stuff on hand, ranging from contemplations of the very nature of life and what we truly know about ourselves and our surroundings, both physically and emotionally, to staggering visuals in which the gorgeous and the terrifying have mutated into something that you cannot take your eyes off of, even during the moments when you most definitely want to shut them. This is not to say that the film is merely some odd intellectual exercise because Garland beautifully maintains a state of tension throughout that should keep viewers on the edge of their seats even if some of the headier concepts on display end up flying over their heads on the initial viewing. Comparisons could be made between his work here and such filmmakers as David Cronenberg and Stanley Kubrick but the only thing that he really has in common with them is his singular artistic vision—the sense that he is treading into areas of cinema where no one has gone before.
Another element that separates “Annihilation” from other films of its type is that it is centered around a cast of main characters that is, aside from Isaac, entirely female in its makeup. This is even commented on by one of the characters and while it is dismissed by pointing out that they are all also brilliant scientists in their own right, the gender flip does add another intriguing, if unspoken, layer to the proceedings that probably wouldn’t exist if it was just the usual group of guys. Of course, Garland has helped his cause in this area by casting a quintet of wonderful actresses as the center of his film. Face it, we pretty much know going in that, because of the conceit and structure of the film, that most of these characters are probably not going to survive to the end credits—they even know going in that they have volunteered for what will most likely be a suicide mission. However, the actresses uniformly do such a good job at establishing their characters in distinct and interesting ways that instead of waiting for them to get picked off in messy ways, we find ourselves hoping against hope that they can think their way out of their troubles and we find ourselves doubly shocked and saddened when it turns out that they can’t. As the one key male character in the piece, Oscar Issac’s performance is, to put it politely, eccentric, but it ends up paying off nicely as well.The only place in which “Annihilation” steps wrong is in the curious framing device that Garland has employed that finds a post-mission Lena being interrogated by a roomful of scientists about what happened during her stay inside the Shimmer. It isn’t bad, per se, but it just feels kind of unnecessary, as if Garland decided to stick it in at the last minute as a way of trying to give the material a greater sense of narrative propulsion that it really doesn’t need. That quibble aside, “Annihilation” is a truly astonishing work of such great ambition and intellectual scope that it boggles the mind that such a thing could have made it through a Hollywood studio system that no longer seems interested in making things that might challenge audiences in even the slightest degree. Yes, some will find it to be ridiculous and pretentious and boring—some people still feel that way about “2001”—and it will no doubt score poorly on those ridiculous audience exit polls that simply are simply not designed to handle anything complex or challenging or which requires more than a little bit of post-screening thought. However, “Annihilation” is the kind of film that will endure the test of time, even as it no doubt fades away quickly at the multiplex, and confirms Alex Garland as one of the most exciting new filmmakers working today.
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