Monday, April 2, 2018

Annihilation

By Sati. Monday, April 2, 2018 , , , , , , , , ,

You dig in places till your fingers bleed 
Spread the infection, where you spill your seed 
I can't remember what she came here for 
I can't remember much of anything anymore 
 She's gone, she's gone, she's gone away 
She's gone, she's gone, she's gone away 
Away...*
(spoilers!)
Alex's Garland's wonderful new science fiction film Annihilation made headlines this year for quite strange reasons. The studio, Paramount - as in the studio that gave Daren Aronofsky 30 million dollars to make a movie based on a script he wrote after he, presumably, dropped acid and his eyes locked on the copy of the Bible on his bookstand - didn't have much faith in the movie. In the result, they sold the distribution rights for most of the markets to Netflix, forcing people like me to watch it at home instead of on the big cinema screen. The move proved to be misguided - the film opened to great reviews and made 3/4 of its budget in US theatrical distribution only.

The film, very loosely inspired by the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy (it's as much of an adaptation as Under the Skin is) follows the biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman), whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is missing after embarking on an expedition to mysterious "Shimmer" - an area where some time ago something out of this world crashed into a lighthouse. One day Kane returns, a shell of his former self. Once he starts bleeding and is on the brink of death, both Kane and Lena are brought to the facility on the borders of Shimmer.
Soon Lena joins the expedition of four other women - psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), anthropologist Cass Shepphard (Tuva Novotny) and physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson). Lena's goal is to find out to her husband and determine how to save him, but while in the Shimmer strange phenomena starts affecting the group.

Each of the women carries a burden with her - Lena has a career, a lovely home and a wonderful husband but she destroys her life by inexplicably cheating on him with her co-worker. Dr. Verntress is terminally ill. Anya is an addict. Cass lost a child to cancer. Josie is a cutter. The story Garland tells is a powerful and poignant metaphor for the human drive towards self-destruction. As Dr. Ventress explains a lot of us self-destruct. And she is right. We smoke. We drink. We ruin the good things we have. We hurt those around us with how we hurt ourselves. We punish our bodies trying to escape the vessel that traps our broken minds. Nothing we do lessens our pain but it clouds it momentarily, enough for us to keep going. And we continue to do so, irrationally. And here comes the force that is trying to change, perhaps for the better. It preys on the humans it encounters but in the end, don't we, as species, deserve to be preyed on?
In the Shimmer things mutate, they change. They absorb, they evolve. They destroy, in order to create. Annihilation suggests that the only way out is to accept those changes - Josie walks into the wild to join the nature around her. Lena gets out after fighting the entity but the shimmer is still in her and she is forever changed. Is there triumph in letting go? Is there triumph in acceptance that you can't win and giving in?

This isn't the only way to read this tale. It's possible it is only a metaphor for cancer and different approaches to dealing with it. In one scene Lena is seen reading "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks". Henrietta Lacks died of cancer in the middle of 20th century but had her cervical cancer cells taken during her treatment by a doctor (without her consent or knowledge) for research purposes. Those cancer cells from Lacks live on today as the HeLa immortal cell line and have been used (and continue to be used) extensively as a study model for many important biological innovations. They were used in research to develop the polio vaccine. Since the 1950s, scientists have grown 20 tons of her cells, and there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells. Much like the victims of the Shimmer who are gone but the Shimmer takes from them and shapes it into something else.  From decay, growth. From sickness, cure. From death, life.
Annihilation also works as the film that shows one's struggles with demons and weaknesses, whatever they may be. The film's most astounding sequence in which the entity starts taking the form of Lena (curiously yet again having Portman face her own double as in my all time favorite film, Black Swan) is a marvel to witness. The sequence runs for a long time but it's impossible to look away from the way it is choreographed, filled with tension and the wonder of the unknown. It actually shares yet another similarity with Black Swan, the film where the line "the only person standing in your way is you" is uttered. Lena must defeat the double in order to get out and continue living. But at this point we aren't even certain if she wants to go on, hence we cannot be sure where the scene is going.

As science fiction film Annihilation is also (possibly) the tale of the beginning of the end for human race, considering the end of the movie. Kane and Lena, now Adam and Eve, with Shimmer inside them, ready to start something better, something changed, something new. Something beyond the human imagination. Lena is changed and Kane is now a double and not her real husband. Her past mistakes don't matter anymore, in something that is almost a romantic twist to the story. Everyone keeps talking about how much they were reminded of The Thing but the movie I was the most reminded of while watching Annihilation, particularly during that ending, was Steven Soderbergh's underrated remake of Solaris.
Annihilation treats its viewer with respect asking questions but not giving easy answers. Garland and his cinematographer Rob Hardy add plenty of visual flourish and interesting details - the house in the Shimmer is the same as Lena's house where she lives with Kane, suggesting perhaps that the Simmer can manifest the memories of its visitors in the form of specific structures and objects. There's also the tattoo representing infinity that is being transferred from one person to another and curious close ups of the glass of water where the reflection in the glass gives clues to understanding of the story and its meaning.

Garland is aided by wonderful cast - for all the complaining about Isaac speaking with strange accent I didn't notice anything too jarring about it and as usual he brings a lot of charm and charisma to his brief screen time here. The entire ensemble did a wonderful job, from Leigh playing Ventress as a cold, passive woman who lost the will to live to Tuva Novotny, who I haven't seen in anything before, delivering memorable and moving performance as a woman defeated by her grief.
Then there's Portman continuing her career renaissance with another strong performance - playing not exactly likable but interesting Lena. Portman is one of those actresses who  has enough screen presence and charisma to carry a film and she does few interesting things here, such as her reaction to the recording, which definitely catch the eye. The five members of the expedition may not be richly developed in the script but all the actresses certainly elevate the material and create interesting and very different characters.

The film itself isn't quite on the level of masterful Ex Machina or highly entertaining and gripping Dredd which, if rumors are to be believed, Garland actually directed. What impoverishes it is clearly the small budget Garland was given to work with (40 million dollars, only 10 more than Aronofsky was given to - while working with nonsensical script - build and demolish a house in mother!. Twice.) - the CGI could have been much better and at times it's a bit jarring, unfortunately even in the film's famed, pivotal scene which features the confrontation between Lena and the entity. But none of that actually lessees the movie's quality too much as there are more than enough things that work here. For one, there's a marvelous, chilling sequence including the exact opposite of Paddington bear that is bound to end on the lists of the most memorable scenes by the time this year ends.
But the best thing when it comes to execution is the incredible score composed by Geoff Barrow (of Portishead) and Ben Salisbury. The music is a mix of cosmic, electronic sounds and folksy guitar and it works tremendously well. Then there is the track "The Alien" of which the otherworldly and memorable sound was used in the film's trailer. You keep waiting to hear it, throughout the film and when it finally comes, in a track this monumental no less, it really creates an amazing background for the scene.The sound editing and mixing is tremendous and while the CGI may be lacking, the sound certainly isn't.

With rich script, strong performances and unforgettable sound and imagery Annihilation is already in the running to become one of the year's finest movies. Hopefully, the positive reception and the almost universal negative reaction to Paramount's lack of faith in the film (and the audience) will result in more daring movies like this one in the future.
*Nine Inch Nails, She's Gone Away.
87/100
Annihilation (115 min, USA, 2018)
Plot: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don't apply.
Director: Alex Garland
Writers: Alex Garland (written for the screen by), Jeff VanderMeer (based on the novel by)
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson

29 comments:

  1. Great review! I liked what you wrote on self-destruction and other interpretations. I was also reminded of Solaris but even more of Stalker (1979) which has a forest-like zone.
    The lighthouse sequence is mesmerizing but there are plot holes-the team not wearing protective gear in the shimmer is weird. Still, the mystery and Portman’s fine performance kept me entertained throughout.

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    1. Thank you! Yeah that thing with protective gear was very odd. They didn't even try to explain it in any way

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  2. Great usage of NIN. I wanted to see this but timing issues made it problematic. I'm not watching it through Netflix, fuck Netflix. I just hope there's a proper DVD release for me to rent it. After all, it's PO'TMAN MOTHAFUCKA!

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    1. Well if you are boycotting Netflix you may be waiting for a long time for this.

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    2. That's OK. Besides, I've never used it and I'm not fond of their exclusivity practices and changing aspect ratios in some films against the wishes of the filmmakers.

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    3. Its all over the internet if you look hard enough ;p

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  3. Nice review, Sati. It's been some time since I saw Solaris, so I didn't really make that connection, but now that you mention it, I can totally see it. I thought this was definitely a really effective film overall.

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    1. Thank you! The ending also has the main couple embracing in a different reality of sorts, so that's how I made the connection

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  4. great new insights, thank you for elaborating! the 'self-destruction' is what resonated with me the most.

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  5. Great review! Yeah, I'm not getting over that bear scene any time soon. That was so creepy.

    I've never seen Solaris, but now I'm curious about it if it reminds you of this.

    I'm still angry over the Netflix thing because it contributed to so much confusion in the U.S. A lot of people skipped this in theaters because they also thought U.S Netflix was getting it in March and that wasn't the case. By doing that not only did they screw everyone internationally out of seeing this on the big screen, but the screwed the U.S audiences too if they just glanced at the headlines.

    Either way, one of my favs this year still.

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    1. I could probably attempt to do a Visual Parallels on these two :)

      The distribution was messed up. Paramount is really trying very hard to get themselves bankrupt.

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  6. So basically I should see this. I could only skim parts of your review to avoid spoilers, but I guess now I HAVE to see it since you scored it so highly! Great graphics, girl, as always.

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    1. Thank you! Yes, watch it, it's certainly worth seeing at least once!

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  7. Fantastic review, Sati. Very well thought out. I really really liked this film and I think I might love it upon rewatches, which I really want to do. I was so blown away by the world inside the Shimmer. It's probably the most original film I have watched since Under the Skin and there's such a pleasure in watching something like that even if you don't fully understand it.
    We recorded an episode on it that'll hopefully come out soon (it's been delayed because of some stuff). I hope you like it :)

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    1. Thank you! I'll definitely listen to the podcast once it's up!

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  8. Great review! I can't wait to see this one again. Sadly, as you mentioned, Paramount absolutely screwed this film in distribution. I think it was in theaters for 2 weeks, which is insane, because it had a lot of interesting things to say. I'm so happy you mentioned the music in the film, it was a highlight for me as well.

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    1. Thanks! The music was amazing. I haven't heard score this good in a very long time. It really added so much to the movie and it's awesome to listen to on its own

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  9. I liked it but I don't think I loved it as much as you did. But I think this is the kind of movie that will benefit from rewatches, since it does ask a lot of questions. And in the podcast episode which we haven't posted yet, we discuss how personal connection to the themes in this movies affect viewers differently. So I just wasn't as affected as others. But I could totally see myself watching this one again.

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    1. I didn't quite love it, I mean a woman cheats on Oscar Isaac in that, what is that? :D I was quite personally connected to the themes, I thought they did a good job portraying them in the movie.

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  10. Your ability to analyse film is really amazing sati. No shit, this aint the first time. NONE of this sort of stuff occurred to me and I watched it three times!!!

    This is such a fucking excellent analysis I need to read it again then watch the film again. There is finally a nice shiny HD copy of it on the net too ;D

    Keep at it, I know you have an insane workload (which I don't, I'm just insane and am barely able to leave the house) and given that, this review is just even better. I had a feeling we would both enjoy this flick, but you and also Tom have opened my eyes - I need to watch it again with a different pair! I feel like I need to come up wuth my own interpretation!

    Again, great stuff, as per usual =]

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    1. I think it's just because I related to the themes in the movie. If I connect to work of art and I enjoy it overall I usually have lots to say. Of course when I hate the shit out of something I have even more to say :)

      Thanks so much for reading my posts, I really appreciate it! I hope you feel better soon!

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    2. Its a constant bipolar thing, its always up and down. Its never too bad though, and when its up its pretty fun =P

      I feel the need to add to my post about the quiet place cos goddamn everyone about it was awful!

      And you are welcome. I assume English is not your first language and if so, your English is freaking excellent. I wouldn't be able to tell if I didn't know where you lived =]

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  11. I love the connection to Solaris too, I was thinking the same thing, though the original not the remake, I haven't seen that as I love the first one. Sounds like I should give it a crack though.

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    1. Yeah, it's a very good movie! Cliff Martinez's score alone makes it worth seeing

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  12. Great review...the score and the sound editing (like you said) were tremendous. I think this is one I'll need to watch again to fully understand, especially after reading your post.

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    1. Yeah I'm ahead of a rewatch myself :)

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  13. This movie. has. infected. my brain. I can't get the score out of my head, nor Crosby's Helplessly Hoping, not even The Shimmer. I have become obsessed with self-destruction, particularly the way Natalie Portman conveys the psychology. (She lies to her husband, lies to the team, and it all blows up in her face.) Btw I totally forgot Portman had previously done battle with herself in Black Swan. I love that correlation.

    Deeper analyses aside, Annihilation is a hell of a sensory experience. The video they find of Kane and his team gets under my skin, and that fucking bear still haunts me as does the imagery of malignant tumors sprouting everywhere. I'm coming up on my 6th viewing of the film and I'm kicking myself in the head for not having seen this in theaters.

    Truly a bummer about its international release. The reasons sound awfully chastising, it being "too intellectual" as if audiences' heads will explode if they use their brains for even a second. I LOVE ponderous sci-fi cinema - Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, now Annihilation. I truly hope this won't deter others from telling cerebral stories like these.

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    1. Wow, 6th viewing? That's impressive! i need to see it again for my next post.

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