Monday, March 5, 2018

No cure for cancer


No, I've never seen Stalker.  It is very long and Russian, and what makes you think these are selling points?  Annihilation, meanwhile, is frustrating, deeply so, but in some respects it is amazing, and it is just two hours long.

Written and directed by Alex Garland (based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer)
With Natalie Portman (Lena), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dr. Ventress), Tessa Thompson (Josie), Tuva Novotny (Cass), Gina Rodriguez (Anya), and Oscar Isaac (Kane)

Spoiler alert: mild

It's obviously by accident, but it is some kind of testament to the warped times we live in that Paramount has apparently decided to stake itself out as the vanguard studio of Hollywood, dedicating significant resources to funding and widely distributing a series of borderline-surrealist art installations made by some of the most go-for-broke auteurs working today.  And yet, from a distance, these art installations do somewhat resemble the genres pieces Paramount markets them as, in the studio's attempt to trick audiences into actually paying to see them.  Last year, it was Darren Aronofsky and mother!  Meanwhile, if you go by the plot synopsis and dipshit aspect ratio fluctuation, there's probably also some kind of crankified case to be made for Michael Bay and Transformers: The Last Knight.  The short version, anyway, is that Paramount is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

The longer version is that here in 2018, they've brought us Alex Garland and Annihilation, and Annihilation is not what you'd expect the writer and director of Ex Machina to make as his sophomore film.  Nevertheless, it is, perhaps, substantially similar to what you'd expect from the director of Ex Machina and the writer of Sunshine, assuming, that is, that you did not know they were the same person.  (If you did know they were the same person, you could see a little shimmer, so to speak, of Dredd in here, too, though I had not previously guessed that [slow motion] and [saturated colors] were written into that screenplay's stage directions.)

So this is the deal: Annihilation is dreadfully unlike Ex Machina in almost every way, except you can tell the same man was behind it, and not only because a suspicious character played by Oscar Isaac kicks off the plot.  It's because the exact same doom-soaked, grim-faced, neo-Kubrickian chilliness embraces almost the whole film, from first frame to last—notwithstanding, that is, the parts that look like a commercial for Armalite rifles.  It's an even bigger reminder that the guy who wrote Ex Machina and this really did also write Dredd, evidently because nobody has the energy to be a dour sci-fi allegorist all the time.

But while Ex Machina was certainly art-adjacent, its dour sci-fi allegory operated under a massively literalist worldview, careful (almost to a fault) to ground its sourpussed fancies in something akin to real science even if it wasn't—Ex Machina was the kind of movie about artificial intelligence that would happily adopt an inaccurate version of the Turing Test that was more convenient to cinematic expression, and then happily spend three minutes explaining its mistake in dialogue.  In other words, Ex Machina is one of a kind.  Annihilation, on the other hand, does not give one fucking shit about science.  Or logic, for that matter, either narrative or any other kind.  (I cannot confirm or deny that this is the case for the novel it's based upon, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach cycle, and the answers are all the hazier when you hear that Garland took the curious step of adapting it by memory.)  And the toughest thing Annihilation throws at you is a full forty minutes of world- and suspense-building by a writer-director who has either assumed that his audience is full of idiots, or, more charitably and probably more truthfully, has assumed that the audience he actually wants to reach simply does not care that he's committed us to marching through an inordinate number of very stupid things in order to get to where he wants us to go.  Annihilation is the kind of movie where a hostile alien environment has established itself on Earth, and nobody has ever thought about tying a rope around the things they send in, let alone giving the people they send in any kind of equipment that might help them survive what looks, even from the outside, pretty bad.  And it's the kind of movie that, when the time comes to explain itself, says that within this alien zone of influence, everything becomes refracted.  This explains the prismatic color of the shell around it, and, according to Garland, this explains how the DNA within it becomes "refracted," too.  I kind of hate Annihilation's script, and this isn't even the biggest reason why.

Nor is it the flashback structure that drives it, though, as with many flashback-driven movies, it's an outright active hindrance.  Still, we must take what we're given, for it's not up to us to rewrite Garland's screenplay for him: the flashback belongs to Lena, an Army veteran and current Johns Hopkins cancer researcher whom we learn has not seen her husband Kane (still serving in the military himself) since he embarked upon a highly-secretive mission one year before.  When a blank-eyed, golem-like version of Kane shows up outside her door, that mystery is only deepened, but at least it gives Lena a possible path toward the answers to her questions, for, almost the instant he's arrived, he begins experiencing massive organ failure.  This, in turn, almost immediately brings down a heavily-armed government intervention team, who cart Kane's dissolving body off to Florida, and Lena too, because that's what men in black do.

This so-called Area X is where she makes the acquaintance of one Dr. Ventress, who reveals to her the nature of Kane's mission, which was to explore the interior of the so-called Shimmer, a rainbow-hued veil that's draped itself across several dozen square miles of swampland, and which has been growing ever since the meteorite we saw in the film's prologue struck a lighthouse on the shore, an improbability so vast it can only be read as a metaphor, though happily it's a pretty obvious one.  (In fact, the film as a whole may be amenable to a thoroughgoing Tarot-based analysis, but I've not done one.)

Well, with all the silly names out of the way in a single five-minute stretch of title cards and expository monologue, we learn that at the rate it's going, the Shimmer will swallow the continent soon enough.  Nobody knows how to stop it.  In point of fact, nobody even knows what it is, because nobody who's ever been inside has ever left—except Kane, if we can call him Kane.  It is, we recall, Lena's fate to escape the Shimmer and to tell her tale, too; but there's a lot to get through before she gets out alive, the sole survivor of the team of scientists who went into the Shimmer, led by Dr. Ventress, accompanied by Lena, and consisting otherwise of Josie (a physicist), Cass (a geologist), and Anya (a paramedic).  Annihilation is also the kind of movie that thinks paramedics are scientists.

Alternatively, when Lena remarks that it's a slight statistical improbability that this five-person team is all-female, and Josie says "all scientists," it was simply the case that nobody wanted to make Anya feel awkward.  Not that their skillsets matter one bit.

Though it is a strange little oddment nonetheless: because, given that it was a deliberate choice on the novelist's part, and given that Garland wrote the arch-arch-arch-feminist parable Ex Machina, and given, finally, that Annihilation is a movie that's clearly intended to be about more than just what you see on the screen, you'd doubtless expect Annihilation to be "about women" in some minor regard, at least, and it very, very steadfastly isn't, to the extent that literally every woman here would've been easily interchangeable with a man.  When you think about it, it is awfully progressive, in its own quiet way—though it's possibly not to the film's greatest credit that you could replace them with specific men, such as, for example, Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn, and Bill Paxton, except those men had more naturalistic dialogue.

Before moving on to the strengths of Annihilation, which I promise I will soon, it really does bear to be repeated, it has an awful script, packed with leaden, unbearably portentous dialogue that no human besides a professional actor could say without burning with embarrassment; and, as they're stuck vomiting out whole gutfulls of Garland's undeliverable pseudo-profundities, there's still no actor whose performance doesn't suffer slightly from the exertion.  It's therefore quite easy to rank our five principals simply by what fraction of time they spend on screen talking.  Thus our star Natalie Portman, allowed the greatest proportion of silent acting (and, fair being fair, having built the most fully-rounded preexisting persona), fares best, and actually does pull off a fully-rounded character, despite the dialogue, and despite the lazy, rote guilt-trip Garland lays on her via a gauntlet of wholly-unnecessary flashbacks-within-flashbacks.  (However, Gina Rodriguez' Anya, whose main purpose is to be an aggressive lesbian for one line, and then deliver a great deal of energy in a mighty, Paxtonesque freak-out, arguably comes off the cleanest of our five.  She's the only character who doesn't get crammed with boilerplate, and as a result is the blankest.  What this means is she's the least poorly-handled, and the only one who bear outs the lesson Kubrick taught with his mystical sci-fi opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and which so many 80s horror directors knew instinctively: that people in distress are interesting by default.)

And I mentioned Ex Machina's modified Turing Test for a reason; it, along with its technical digressions, offered a formal structure where this kind of didacticism and thematic heft could thrive.  (It didn't hurt that one of the conversationalists was a robot.)  Annihilation, which lacks any such structure, was never going to come off even that well, and Domnhall Gleeson had terrible trouble with it even in that milieu.  But when Annihilation's science lectures amount to Trekkian technobabble, and when its pontifications tend to brazenly inform character through brute-force exposition, it's lucky this movie even survives.

What that leaves us with is the art film, about things that want to die so they can be reborn.  As we can more-or-less neatly sever this from the dialogue (much of which is like that, by the way, "things that want to die so they can be reborn," though it's not a quote), there is very, very little to complain about when it comes to the movie Alex Garland made, as opposed to the movie Alex Garland just wrote.  Garland, whom I've had ample clause to grouse about before, appears to have cracked his own code; it turns out all he needed to do with his less-successful screenplays was direct them himself.  Annihilation, then, is an extraordinary exercise in sustained mood, a glimpse of apocalypse brought to life in natural spaces, altered by the Shimmer (and by production designer Mark Digby), and singing with the dirge of Barney Pillen's sullenly aggressive editing and Rob Hardy's cinematography, a crisp and soulless digital job that captures the resigning spirit (and much of the blown-out glare) of the Laser Age sci-fi to which Annihilation self-consciously hearkens back.  (As great as it is, though, maybe it's no great surprise; after all, Digby and Hardy managed almost exactly the same tasks for Garland, albeit in a different environment, back on Ex Machina.)  All along, powerfully subtle visual effects remind us of the Shimmer's alien nature—strange rainbow skies seen through trees, reflections of the prismatic light in water.

Not every effect is subtle, to be sure.  For inside Garland's severe art film is the best body horror movie in an age—maybe a literal generation!—that takes cancer as its motif, and as its multifaceted metaphor: for life's drive to die; for change, not necessarily for the better (I told you The Tower was important); for striving punished (seriously); and for life's only apparent purpose, which is mindless survival in the face of a monstrously indifferent universe.  The Shimmer is a carcinogen upon the Earth, mutating it into new and dangerous forms.  (I said this movie is almost angrily nonchalant about science, and it's entirely possible Garland does not know what cancer is, but nevermind.)  The forms the Shimmer motivelessly manifests within terrestrial life run the gamut from the beautifully grotesque, to the just plain beautiful, to the shit-your-pants terrifying, because Garland, though his film be pretentious and his themes be important, is still an entertainer.

Above everything, then—at least while it's on the screen (and in the speakers)—Annihilation is about a certain bear, coming complete with the most upsetting piece of sound design possible, not to mention a gore shock that's the best of its kind since time out of mind.  Annihilation would burn itself into your memory just with that, and while it never (and probably could not) get scarier, it only gets weirder from there.  This is when the final members of Garland's team, composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (likewise Ex Machina vets), come into their own; Annihilation is an hour and a half of relatively standard "sci-fi doom" music, punched up (incongruously, in its passive way) with hints of folk rock.  Then, after ramping up for ten minutes, it's another ten of an abject electronic assault (in a good way!), set against the most bizarre turn of the film, as Lena gets to the true heart of the thing she's fighting, and finds it to be one of the few genuinely alien creatures cinematic sci-fi has managed in its long and storied history.  It's a beyond-the-infinite moment as stirring and enigmatic and goofy and earnest as anything I've ever witnessed, only the tiniest bit disappointing because it abdicates (and only for a few moments) the gross Cronenergian register Annihilation had been so happy to rut in, in exchange for a little too much chimeric, glowy CGI.  It's an ending that'll remind you, in turn, of 2001, Solaris, A.I., and Black Swan, and—honestly—nothing at all.

Annihilation's problems run very deep, yet they're largely easy to ignore, especially once past the hump of its establishing act; it would be nicer if some things were clearer (whereas others would be better, rendered more ambiguous than they already are); it would be better still if less time were spent on declaring character traits out loud, and more on the mutation of our human objects; or, best of all, it would've been a major plus if I cared about anyone in this film beyond the basic hook of "I recognize and like Natalie Portman."  And God knows, it would've been great if Garland could have bothered to care at all about the hard-SF audience he'd cultivated with Ex Machina, and built a foundation for Annihilation that could conceivably survive even a half-hearted attempt at nitpicking it.  But it is great, anyway, and while it is, I suppose, like many things—it wears its influences on its sleeve, and yes, I will eventually get around to Stalker—at its best, it's like nothing I can name.  It certainly isn't like anything you've seen in a while.

Score:  9/10


  1. You were harsher on the script than I was, and yet it rightfully earned that flogging. I think our differing scores show how we feel about form over function, because sometimes I just can't pull myself out of the trenches of plot and dialogue. And BOY is that the weakest element of the film.

    Maybe Alicia Vikander is the key to Garland's success, because Oscar Isaac sure wasn't doing it for me here and I usually love him.

    1. It's actually a little weird that Oscar Isaac gets as heavily mentioned in connection with this movie as he is, right? It's effectively a cameo, and half of the cameo he's playing someone either in a coma or effectively a zombie. I'm pretty sure he has fewer lines than Benedict Wong.

    2. Also, when you get down to it, it's barely possible that Annihilation's script isn't THAT much worse than your average 50s sci-fi flick.