Annihilation (2018)

2018 #45
Alex Garland | 115 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Annihilation

Many column inches (and even more tweets) have been penned about Paramount’s decision to relegate director Alex Garland’s second third film straight to Netflix outside the US, Canada, and China, so I presume the pros and cons of that move have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Personally, I’m on the fence: it’s disappointing not to see intelligent sci-fi being given a shot at the box office, but I’m one of those people who’s 50/50 on whether I go to see it or just wait for disc/streaming/etc. (I’ve not even seen The Shape of Water, for example, although that’s partly due to a dearth of convenient screenings during its brief theatrical appearance. Conversely, I did go to Arrival.) Anyway, it is what it is at this point, so let’s move on to the film itself.

Loosely based on the acclaimed novel by Jeff VanderMeer (reportedly Garland read the book once then wrote the screenplay from memory), it follows biologist, academic, and former member of the Army, Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went missing a year ago during a secretive mission. After he suddenly reappears, apparently with no memory of his time away but with some severe medical problems, the couple are scooped up by a military organisation investigating Area X, a top-secret quarantined zone affected by an unexplained phenomenon known as the Shimmer. Various teams have been sent inside the Shimmer, but Kane is the only person to ever return. As his health deteriorates, Lena, desperate for answers, joins the latest squad to venture inside. That’s where stuff gets crazy…

Squad goals

The first thing Annihilation made me think of was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. The connection was initially triggered by the score: the ambient soundtrack by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury reminded me so much of Arrival’s that I had to check this wasn’t a last work by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Once I spotted that, the other similarities in the story leapt out: they’re both thoughtful sci-fi parables about a female university lecturer being co-opted into a military operation to investigate a strange extraterrestrial presence on Earth, while also remembering her family life in flashbacks.

Despite Paramount’s insistence that the film was too intelligent for non-US audiences (you can take a moment to laugh at that notion if you like), Annihilation is perhaps more accessible than Arrival, at least initially. Whereas Villeneuve’s film played like a character drama, Garland’s has a strong adventure-movie vein, also laced with elements of the horror genre. It’s still not a mile-a-minute thrill-ride, but, if you wanted, you could engage with it on the level of a quest through an alien event, encountering strange phenomena and creatures, with events of life-threatening jeopardy. However, for all the original sci-fi ideas, it does also touch on weightier, more human psychological issues — as the Empire review summarised it, “depression, grief and the human propensity for self-destruction.”

All the better to eat you with

Naturally this material is carried by the cast. Portman makes for an interesting lead. Clearly damaged by grief, she’s quite a cold figure, which may distance her from some viewers in the way it does from some of her team mates. But there’s more to it than that, and Portman delivers subtle nuances that hint at more beneath the surface. The rest of her all-female squad — played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Gina Rodriguez — all have distinct personalities, all get brief subplots and moments, and they’re mostly managed with an equal level of understatement. Perhaps the best is Thompson, whose calm, gently heartfelt performance is quietly superb, and even more striking as it marks a huge contrast to her star-making turn in Thor: Ragnarok just a few months ago. As a pair of films to be a calling-card for her skills, one could barely ask for more.

A lot of disappointment about the lack of a theatrical release stems to not being able to see these visuals on a cinema screen; not being able to experience the audio with a cinema sound system. Well, that partly depends on your own setup at home, of course. Setting that aside, though, while there are certainly some very striking visuals, it wasn’t as consistently stunning as some reviews made it sound. I’m not saying it wouldn’t benefit from the big screen, especially if you’re particularly fond of that experience, but I didn’t feel I was missing much scale by watching at home. I felt similarly about the sound design, though I do say that as someone with a 7.1 system. For spectacle, the intricate and colourful end credits are the most striking bit — I’m certain they benefitted from my viewing the film in 4K HDR.

Scared of the dark?

However you get to see it, writer-director Alex Garland has crafted another sci-fi mystery/thriller that engages on multiple levels. For me it was somewhat damaged by the hype, perhaps a result of US reviewers frantically urging people to get out and see it to prove that Paramount’s lack of faith was a mistake. While I didn’t instantly love it in the same way as, say, Arrival, or Garland’s debut, Ex Machina, it’s undoubtedly a fascinating, thought-provoking slice of science-fiction — and a much-needed critical success for the “Netflix Original” brand after a couple of recent duds. I’d also say it places Garland ahead of genre contemporaries like Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Okay, he’s not quite Denis Villeneuve, but he’s a lot closer than the others.

4 out of 5

Annihilation is available on Netflix in most of the world now.

Ex Machina (2015)

2016 #26
Alex Garland | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2016
5 nominations

Nominated: Best British Film; Best Supporting Actress (Alicia Vikander); Best Original Screenplay; Best Special Visual Effects; Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.

A British sci-fi movie from a first-time director will tomorrow take a place at the table (well, in the auditorium) alongside 2015’s biggest awards contenders, as it vies for multiple gongs at this year’s BAFTAs — and it stands a very plausible chance of walking away with several of them, too. I hope it does, because, after a year that brought us awards-quality sci-fi bombast (Mad Max, Star Wars), it’s fantastic that a small film about three people sat in rooms talking can stand toe-to-toe with them as one of the year’s best.

The increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer at search engine giant Google Bluebook who wins a staff lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive founder, Nathan, played by the increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Oscar Isaac. However, on his arrival he learns he’s not just there to hang out: Nathan wants him to perform a Turing test on an AI he’s built. The point of the Turing test (as I’m sure you know) is for a human to interact with an AI but not realise it’s an AI, so Caleb’s surprised when said AI — Ava, played by the increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Alicia Vikander — comes in the form of a robot that’s obviously a robot. The real test is whether Caleb can know he’s talking to something non-human and still come to be convinced it’s human. As Caleb begins his interviews with Ava, it becomes apparent that there’s something else going on at this remote facility, where regular power cuts mean they’re all locked in…

As is probably clear, Ex Machina is a sci-fi movie of the thoughtful variety. It’s a film that considers ideas of artificial life, how we test it and what it means to create it, and only gradually builds in thriller elements that pay off in its final twenty-or-so minutes. In truth, it’s not the most thorough deconstruction of what it means to be human and whether artificial intelligence can have that right, but it does touch on these issues and, in so doing, leaves them open for the viewer to mull over for themselves, or debate with friends, or however else one likes to consider their movies post-viewing (like, I dunno, writing about them on the internet or something).

There are thematic similarities to Blade Runner, which (in case you’ve not seen it) also deals with the humanity or otherwise of man-made intelligence. Mulling on that comparison, I’m tempted to say Ex Machina is almost the inverse of Blade Runner, in this regard: Ridley Scott’s classic is ostensibly an SF-noir thriller (Harrison Ford is a cop hunting down some rogue robots), but by its end has revealed a considered exploration of what it means to be human, and whether these artificial creatures can lay claim to that. Conversely, Alex Garland’s film seems like it’s sitting us down to consider those same issues, but is actually laying the groundwork for revelations and twists that build to an edge-of-your-seat climax. I’m not saying one’s better than the other in this respect, just that they’re approaching the same topics almost from opposite ends.

Also like Blade Runner, Ex Machina is an exceptionally well made and performed film. Not in the same way as Blade Runner — it’s bright and clean and modern, in a Google-y, Apple-y kind of way — but to a similar level of internal consistency and accomplishment. Gleeson’s Caleb may seem a little plain, a blank page for the other characters to write on, but as his insecurities begin to come to the fore you realise that’s almost the point. Isaac is suitably overbearing as the alcohol-dependent genius behind Bluebook and Ava, an initially affable but quickly disquieting presence — he may be a threat, or may just be a bit odd. And his dance scene is surely one of 2015’s highlights (there’s an extended version hidden on the US Blu-ray, which is a treat). Garnering the most praise (and awards) is Alicia Vikander’s take on an AI. It’s a tricky role to tackle, because she’s not just a robot — that would defeat the point of Nathan’s exercise — but nor is she fully human. It’s a tightrope of a role, a fine line to walk, and Vikander negotiates it with aplomb. To say too much more would be to spoil it.

Aside from the acting, the film’s most striking element is surely the design of Ava. Her face and hands appear to be human, but everything else is robotic, and much of it transparent. This isn’t a case of slipping an actor into a suit painted with circuitboards — you can see the metal limbs and motors in her arms and legs, the metal spine in her back, the various computers or power sources or whatever glowing and spinning inside her. Occasionally she dresses in clothes and her workings are covered, but she spends most of the film with them on display. The CGI is literally flawless, which for a relatively-low-budget little British sci-fi-drama is all the more remarkable. I guess the visual effects awards are going to go to the big films, Star Wars or Mad Max or The Revenant (the bear seems to be very popular), but I do wonder if the work here is more deserving. You know how it must’ve been done — mo-cap suits and CGI — but there’s still a feeling of “how did they do that?”, because it’s so faultless. In fact, you don’t even wonder how they did it, because you just accept it; it’s only if you actively stop to consider it that you realise it’s physically impossible and must be CGI.

Those after a dissertation-like hard-science deconstruction of the meaning and possibilities of AI will likely find Ex Machina slightly lacking, as will anyone after the crash-bang thrills most mainstream sci-fi provides. Viewers prepared for a decently thought-provoking dramatic thriller about near-future tech, however, should be both engrossed, and grateful that movies like this are (for the time being) still getting made.

5 out of 5

The British Academy Film Awards are tomorrow night, televised on BBC One from 9pm.

Ex Machina placed 20th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.