Annihilation


A team of women enter a brave new world.

(2018) Science Fiction (Paramount) Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno, Sammy Hayman, Josh Danford, Kristen McGarrity, Bern Collaco, Kumud Pant, Richard Clark, Hiten Patel, Bobby Mahmi, Helena Holmes, Mairead Armstrong, Crystal Clarke, Odette Mitchell, Honey Holmes. Directed by Alex Garland

 

Sometimes we wonder what other worlds look like; are they beautiful like ours or barren and dismal? It stands to reason that worlds that are like ours will have some differences of flora and fauna. But if the intelligent species of those worlds decided to invade ours, wouldn’t they have to remake it in our image?

That seems to be the case. In a zone called The Shimmer, a state park has been surrounded by a force field that people can pass through. Those who have passed through however, have never returned. That includes Kane (Isaac), the husband of Lena (Portman) who is a medical doctor, a biology professor who like her husband has a military background. A year has passed by since his disappearance. Then, something happens that throws her life into disarray.

Now she needs to know what happened to Kane in the Shimmer. She meets with Dr. Ventress (Leigh), the project leader in trying to find out what the Shimmer is and what it means for humanity. Is it the beginning of the end? Is it a natural phenomenon? An invasion? A portal into another dimension? Inquiring minds need to know.

So a team of women are sent into see if they can find the answers, led by Ventress but including Anya (Rodriguez), Cass (Novotny) and Josie (Thompson). What they will find inside the Shimmer is not what they were expecting, but it is nonetheless a dangerous place that they can’t let their guard down not even for a moment. Not against the environment – and not against each other. After all, what would a sci-fi film be without at least some of the characters bearing deep dark hidden secrets?

This could easily have been a run of the mill creature feature (and there are several creatures to be found in this film, some damn frightening) but that’s just not the way Garland operates. This is a thinking person’s sci-fi, based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer. It is the first book in a trilogy, which is probably what attracted Paramount in the first place – the potential for a franchise. That’s not exactly what they got, which is probably why the studio’s financial department demanded changes in the film (particularly the ending) because it was “too cerebral.” Producer Scott Rudin, who had the final cut negotiated in his contract, refused and the movie went out as Garland wanted it.

There is certainly some allegory here, both in the sense of how our own planet’s environment is changing and the lethal consequences that will arise as part of that. There are a few logical holes that I really can’t go into without spoiling the plot so I won’t and the movie runs just shy of two hours which is about a half hour too long. I like the intelligence of the script but I could have done with a little less travelogue.

The visuals are absolutely breathtaking and highly imaginative; there are images here that are going to stick with you for a long time to come, the stuff of both dreams and nightmares. The performances are a little hit and miss; at times Portman doesn’t seem to be in sync with what’s going on although it is true that her character does have a lot on her mind. However, Leigh gives a stellar performance that reminds us that she is an Oscar-nominated performer who is one of the most underrated actresses in Hollywood.

Whether you like this or not is going to depend heavily on whether you prefer to use science fiction as an escape or as illumination. Those who prefer the latter will find rich material to mine here; those who prefer the former are going to end up with a headache. I’m sort of in the middle on this one; it’s certainly flawed but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t enough here to check out, particularly if you like your movies to challenge you. This one does that for certain.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are spectacular. Leigh gives a stellar performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit disjointed. The film runs way too long, maybe a good 40 minutes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and some bloody images, plenty of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Isaac and Mizuno worked with Garland on his previous film Ex-Machina.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town

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Life


Ryan Reynolds in space.

(2017) Science Fiction (Columbia) Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare, David Muir, Elizabeth Vargas, Jesus Del Orden, Allen McLean, Leila Grace Bostwick-Riddell, Mari Gvelesiani, Haruka Kuroda, Alexandre Nguyen, Woong-sin Hiu, Camiel Warren-Taylor, Naoko Mori. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

 

Space, by definition, is lifeless. Space movies shouldn’t be. The best science fiction movies allow us to see ourselves through a window of “what-if.” I suppose that’s true of movies, period.

The International Space Station is on a mission to retrieve a robotic spacecraft returning from Mars. Knocked off of its trajectory by space debris, it hurtles towards the ISS which will have just one opportunity to grab it or else the soil samples and data it collected will be lost forever. Astronaut Rory Adams (Reynolds) snags the spacecraft and brings it into the space station. There, biologist Hugh Derry (Bakare) makes a startling discovery; there is life in the Martian soil. Single celled, maybe, but life nonetheless. The living organism becomes a sensation back at home as the astronauts study it and a naming contest among schoolkids bestow upon the creature the name “Calvin.”

As anyone who has ever seen this kind of movie knows, this doesn’t end well. When Calvin goes dormant, the supposedly brilliant scientists on the space station – presumably with the blessing of colleagues on Earth – decide to use an electrical current to wake up the organism. That’s a pretty rude thing to do to a guest, don’t you think?

Certainly Calvin thinks so and he reacts to the rudeness with homicidal mania. Wouldn’t you? In any case Calvin holds a few xenomorphing surprises up his sleeve…well, he doesn’t have sleeves exactly but you get my meaning. In any case he starts picking off the astronauts one by one and it becomes horribly apparent that the crew must keep Calvin from heading to Earth at all costs – even at the cost of their own lives.

This was originally slated for a summertime release before it was knocked back to March and for good reason; this is a seriously flawed film. For one thing, it follows Ridley Scott’s Alien virtually note for note. I’ll be honest, it’s better to rip off a classic film than a mediocre one but nonetheless the writers don’t offer anything new; it’s just a different kind of xenomorph than the original and it takes place closer to home in both time and place. You could do a pretty decent mash-up with the two movies and never lose a beat.

Espinosa has gotten himself a stellar cast for his movie. Reynolds and Gyllenhaal are two of the most popular stars out there and Reynolds brings the wise-ass persona from his most recent films onto the ISS here. It works rather nicely. Gyllenhaal is a bit more workmanlike, but nonetheless holds the attention of the viewer with his own intensity. He’s a little bit miscast but pulls it off nonetheless.

Most of the rest of the cast is fairly colorless which is a shame because the actors while lesser known than the two leads are solid in the acting department, particularly Sanada and Ferguson. The characters are essentially disposable, meant to be death bait for the CGI alien who is apparently much brighter than the humans because the humans keep putting themselves in situations that are way more dangerous than they have to be. Astronauts are supposed to be smart and in The Martian they were; here, they’re just good looking.

A movie like this is going to live and die on its CGI and the graphics here aren’t bad. Calvin shows up pretty early on and while he morphs into a succeeding variety of creatures each more deadly than the last, we don’t get the mystery we got from the original Alien where the creature wasn’t revealed until much later in the movie. This is a bit of a technical error on the part of the filmmakers. The first part of the movie when we’re meeting Calvin in his initial forms is far more interesting than the bug hunt portion of the film at the end.

I don’t mind films borrowing from other films. There is nothing new under the sun (or apparently under the stars) after all. I just wish there would be just a little bit more variance from the source material. Everything here is way predictable including the ending. This is basically a poster child for wasted opportunity. The idea behind Calvin was a good one; if only they had surrounded him with a story worthy of that imagination

REASONS TO GO: The alien creature is pretty nicely accomplished. Reynolds is on a roll and this kind of film is just tailor-made for him.
REASONS TO STAY: There is definitely a been-there, seen-that feel to the film. The second half of the movie loses what good will the first half builds up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language and a modicum of sci-fi violence and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skydance Media, the production company primarily responsible for the film, has been based at Paramount for seven years; not only is this their first film for a distributor other than Paramount, it is also their first R-rated film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Buster’s Mal Heart