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.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is an Army vet and Johns Hopkins cellular biologist with a focus on cancer research. Other than her work, she's largely withdrawn from the world in the year since her career military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) vanished along with other soldiers during a secret mission to a location he couldn't divulge. Out of nowhere, Kane returns home confused and distant and begins coughing up blood. A military convoy intercepts the ambulance and whisks Lena and Kane to a top-secret compound constructed at a location off the coast of the southern US termed "Area X." A comatose, quarantined Kane is on a ventilator and Lena is interrogated by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychiatrist stationed at Area X. Outside the compound is a translucent, floating mass called "The Shimmer." Described by Ventress as "a religious or an alien event," it first appeared three years earlier and has slowly been growing and expanding, even taking over a small town that was evacuated under the pretext of a chemical spill. No one who's gone into The Shimmer has emerged except Kane, and prior to his coma, he had no recollection of his time inside, what happened, or how long he was there. Ventress is planning an expedition into The Shimmer with a trio of contracted personnel--paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and geologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny)--that eventually includes Lena. Once inside The Shimmer, what feels like a few hours ends up being at least several days, as they've already gone through several meal rations and have no recollection eating or even setting up camp. The area is a vast forest filled with a mash-up of flora that don't exist in the same family. Josie is attacked by an alligator that's shot dead by Lena, and upon examination, has teeth that belong to the shark family and exhibits other signs of DNA that it shouldn't. As they venture deeper into The Shimmer, time blurs more and strange sights abound--deer with plants sprouting from their antlers, trees and plants growing in the shape of human bodies, Anya noticing her fingerprints fluidly moving on her fingertips, and the discovery of a memory card left behind by Kane's group at an abandoned Army base--as Josie theorizes that The Shimmer is prismically "refracting" everything contained in it, absorbing the DNA of whatever life forms have entered and creating an almost constantly-shifting change in them.

Things go much deeper--and get a lot worse--for the expedition, and Garland keeps the audience on its toes by the very gradual and subtle reveal of information, whether it's the framing device of Lena being debriefed by a mysterious, Hazmat-suited figure (Benedict Wong) in an observation room or the life choices made by the five women that led them on what's ultimately termed a "suicide mission" ("We're all damaged goods," Sheppard confides to Lena). Garland isn't afraid make Lena a very flawed character and even risks turning the audience against her, depending which way you read a key development. The film takes a downright trippy turn into Kubrick "2001 Stargate" territory in the last 20 or so minutes, leading to an ambiguous ending that's riddled with multiple interpretations and prompting reflection upon a number of small but very significant details parsed throughout (keep an eye on that ouroboros tattoo). While Garland goes for a couple of easy jump scares, where he really succeeds with ANNIHILATION beyond the implications of what The Shimmer is capable of doing, is by creating one of the most ominous and unsettling vibes that I've felt from a horror film in quite some time, probably since 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.

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