Sunday, February 25, 2018
In Theaters: ANNIHILATION (2018)
(US/UK - 2018)
Written and directed by Alex Garland. Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi, Sonoya Mizuno. (R, 115 mins)
Though he initially made his name as an acclaimed author with his 1996 novel The Beach, Alex Garland has become much better-known in recent years for his contributions to sci-fi cinema. He didn't pen the screenplay adaptation for Danny Boyle's 2000 film of THE BEACH, but he did team with the TRAINSPOTTING director on two future projects, scripting 2003's zombie apocalypse trailblazer 28 DAYS LATER and 2007's underrated environmental sci-fi gem SUNSHINE. Garland also scripted Mark Romanek's 2010 future dystopia drama NEVER LET ME GO, based on Kazuo Ichiguro's 2005 novel, and Pete Travis' 2012 cult classic reboot DREDD. But it was with his 2015 directing debut EX MACHINA that Garland really gained some serious momentum, including an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. EX MACHINA brings us to his first major-studio filmmaking effort, the $40 million ANNIHILATION, an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. Garland uses the book for the core concept and the structure, but largely takes it in his own direction, and anyone who's seen EX MACHINA or the films he's scripted will see recurring themes and ideas. As shaped by Garland, ANNIHILATION is densely-packed and thought-provoking, and while the utilization of ideas from films that have come before--the 1982 version of THE THING, EVENT HORIZON, THE RELIC, THE DESCENT, various old-school Cronenberg-derived body horrors, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ARRIVAL (which was hitting theaters when this was in production in 2016), and even a mutant bear on loan from 1979's PROPHECY--do give the story mechanics a too familiar feel at times that keeps it just shy of perfection, ANNIHILATION's real success lies not with the What, but with the Why, the How, the Who, and the When. Garland introduces some heady, hard-science ideas throughout, and it's refreshing to see a horror film trust and respect its audience enough to refuse to spell everything out for them. ANNIHILATION expects you to pay attention and keep up (multiple viewings are likely required). This trust and respect Garland placed in the audience caused friction with Skydance CEO and co-executive producer David Ellison, who was concerned about a disastrous test screening and complained that the film was "too intellectual." When Garland refused to make any changes and co-executive producer Scott Rudin remained supportive of the filmmaker's vision and backed him up (Rudin had final cut written into his deal, essentially pulling rank on Ellison), Skydance partner and distributor Paramount--perhaps out of spite or fearing they had another CLOVERFIELD PARADOX on their hands--sold the distribution rights to Netflix everywhere in the world but North America and China, then decreased the US theatrical screen count to around 2000.
THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER, so much so that even the recurrent use of Crosby Stills & Nash's "Helplessly Hoping" starts to make you uneasy. This is an uncomfortable film whose images and soundscapes burrow under your skin and haunt you, with at least two nerve-shredding sequences of extended creepiness that aren't easily shaken. Whatever commercial potential Paramount thought ANNIHILATION might've had is irrelevant after the opening weekend. Mainstream audiences probably won't be very receptive to it, but Garland's film--pretty close to an instant genre classic--is a reminder that there was once a time when major studios welcomed creative artists with open arms and championed intelligent and challenging films that might stand the test of time rather than merely clean up at the box office for a week or two and quickly fade from memory. It will probably be out of theaters in two weeks, but ANNIHILATION is a film that's playing the long game, and it's one that fans will be discussing and debating for years to come. And coupled with EX MACHINA and his screenwriting resume before, it unquestionably establishes Alex Garland as a leading figure in sci-fi cinema today.