If 2001: A Space Odyssey knocked up The Thing
I like this as a weekly setup, don’t you?
So Alex Garland is not a name many of you are intimately familiar with, but you may have heard a ton of his previous screenplays: Sunshine, 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. Solid films all in all, and he made his directorial debut three years back with Ex Machina, which I initially had complex thoughts on, but have grown to appreciate it a little bit more as time has progressed. Now he’s back with Annihiliation, a film adaptation of the first part of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, a highly well received series of science fiction novels. Based on the guy’s résumé (PS: he also wrote the scripts for the video games of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and DMC: Devil May Cry), Garland is a massive science fiction dork in all the right ways. So how did he do for his sophomore directing effort? Is it every bit of a mindfuck as his previous works? Read on…or watch on, whatever’s your pleasure.
We find our protagonist in Lena (Natalie Portman), a former solider and cellular biologist, who has been trying to move on with her life after the year-long disappearance of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). To her shock, he actually appears unannounced in their home, but turns out he barely remembers how the hell he got there or indeed who the hell Lena is supposed to be. When he starts convulsing and hemorrhaging from the mouth, Lena’s attempt to get medical attention is halted by the military. Turns out, Kane was sent into a mysterious area in Louisiana classified by the government as “Area X” or “The Shimmer.”
For the past three years, tons of expeditions have walked into this ever-expanding parcel of land, only to never be heard from again. Hoping to discover what happened to her husband, Lena hooks up with the latest team to go into the Shimmer comprised of all female scientists: the psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh); the paramedic, Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez); the physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson); and an anthropologist, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). Inside the Shimmer, all sorts of strange phenomenon are encountered from time displacement to severe DNA tampering of planet and animal life to metaphysical abnormalities; as the team braves their way to the center of Area X, a mysterious lighthouse that was identified as the source from where these oddities began.
It’s nice to see speculative science fiction earn some more coin in the budget department to bring their realities to life. Life in the Shimmer feels like an LSD-inspired trip through the Bayou. It’s simultaneously gorgeous and terrifying to behold, as you see something familiar twisted beyond recognition into something more alien. Kind of like the “uncanny valley” but for vegetation and wildlife, with every color being heavily saturated thanks to the stellar camerawork on display. Even more impressive is that this was mostly accomplished with a comparatively small budget of $60 million…well it’s small compared to the gargantuan budget of the completely ugly Transformers films. But at least Alex Garland knew how to take advantage of his sets, as well as knowing how to alter footage so subtly to make you realize you’re not in your current reality any more.
Actually, another thing Garland succeeds in accomplishing is establishing tension. There are multiple moments from the beginning of the second act onward that had me knots, not unlike my previous experience with Dunkirk. This was accomplished through some claustrophobic shots mixed with some fierce sound editing as you heard creatures that were positively nightmare-inducing. Additionally, the mood of the overall piece contributed to a healthy dose of paranoia that was effectively portrayed by the solid actresses on hand.
I’ll get to the lead in a bit, but Jennifer Jason Leigh was so damn good in this. I have not seen her in this top form since The Hateful Eight, but she has to portray a psychologist who analyzes the rest of her team while subtly dropping hints to our protagonist (and by extension, us) of her reasons for being in the Shimmer. Additionally, Tessa Thompson has to play the most timid member of the team, which was ironic given how boisterous and fun her character was in Thor: Ragnarok; and yet, she pulls the role off effortlessly while dropping some major mysteries regarding her character to boot. For comedic relief we turned to Gina Rodriguez, who plays a much different role from her usual take in Jane the Virgin, and we go to some uncomfortably dark places with her, especially one scene that felt inspired (or rather brazenly taken from) The Thing (1982). Finally, Tuva Novotny is a name I really never paid much attention to, but she did draw me in with a tragic backstory as she surprisingly had more insight to the rest of the cast. Also, Oscar Isaac is once again impressive, but I don’t want to talk about him too much to keep you in the dark about spoilers.
But the MVP definitely belongs to Natalie Portman. She’s fantastic in anything you place her in, but she really adds a lot to a very complicated role. While her motivation for going into the Shimmer is well established in the beginning, you discover additional reasons for even wanting to go further into a nightmarish landscape that make her far more nuanced and complex. Portman rises to the occasion to accurately give you a strong range of emotions that clearly give you an idea of what’s going through her mind without having to say a word. And when this movie goes nuts seven ways from Sunday in the climax, it’s still amazing that she never loses your focus and she doesn’t allow you to get totally lost in the acid trip.
That being said, story-wise…yeah that ending was pretty bonkers. It’s not mother! level insane (mostly because you don’t have the director yelling “BEHOLD MY BRILLIANCE PEONS!”), but I think it’s far closer in kinship to something like Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, that might be a major turn off for some as it was indeed for test audiences on this movie, but for the most part I felt the conclusion was definitely earned given the movie we were presented with. Though even I am still having difficulty digesting what I saw. Actually, while I’m on the complain train, I really need to emphasize the first act of this film seriously drags on way too much. I get Garland was trying to set up the scene for the big tension-a-thon once you get to the Shimmer, but I could have seen him edit it a bit more to streamline it for a stronger finish.
Nonetheless, I did feel this was a much better final product than his previous film, as the movie had some interesting things to speculate concerning the nature of creation and destruction, as well as how much we can be affected by biological changes before we lose our humanity. But that first act was a bit of a slog to get through before you arrive at the real balls out craziness of Area X and see why people were raving about these books. Found quite a bit to dig about this movie, despite my criticisms, so I’ll give this a strong…
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