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.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

aka Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 #191
J.J. Abrams | 135 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
5 nominations

Nominated: Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects.




Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not the best film of 2015. Not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, anyway, who didn’t see fit to nominate it for Best Picture at tomorrow’s Oscars. Many fans disagree, some vociferously, but was it really a surprise? The Force Awakens is a blockbuster entertainment of the kind the Academy rarely recognise. Okay, sci-fi actioner Mad Max: Fury Road is among this year’s nominees, but with its hyper-saturated cinematography and stylised editing, it is action-extravaganza as art-film, further evidenced by some people’s utter bafflement at how anyone can like a film so devoid of story or character. (It isn’t, of course — those people are wrong.)

I’m sure the makers of Star Wars can rest easy, though, what with it being the highest grossing film ever at the US box office (at $924m and counting, it’s the first movie to take over $800m, never mind $900m), and third-ever worldwide (behind only Titanic and Avatar, both of which had re-releases to compound their tallies). Its reception has been largely positive too, with many fans proclaiming it the third or fourth best Star Wars movie — which doesn’t sound so hot, but when two of those previous films are unimpeachable all-time favourites, being third is an achievement. There are many dissenting voices though, disappointed thanks to their perception that it’s just a rehash of A New Hope, and that it’s a movie short on original ideas but long on modern-blockbuster bluster and noise.

I think, at this point, one or two other people on the internet have written the odd word about The Force Awakens — you have to really go looking, but trust me, there are some articles out there. (Of course, by “one or two other people” I really mean “everybody else”, and by “the odd word” I mean “hundreds of thousands of millions of words”. And by “have” I mean “has”, for grammatical accuracy in this completely-revised sentence).

I too could talk about the likeable new heroes; the triumphant return of old favourites; the underuse of other old favourites; Daisy Ridley’s performance; John Boyega’s performance; the relationship between Rey and Finn; the relationship between Finn and Poe; the success of Kylo Ren and General Hux as villains (well, I thought they were good); the terrible CGI of Supreme Leader Snoke; the ridiculous overreaction to the alleged underuse of Captain Phasma; that awesome fight between the stormtrooper with that lightning stick thing and Finn with the lightsaber; the mystery of Rey’s parentage; the mystery of who Max von Sydow was meant to be (and if we’ll ever find out); some elaborate theory about why Ben wasn’t called Jacen (there must be one — elaborate theories that will never be canon are what fandoms are good for); the way it accurately emulates the classic trilogy’s tone; the way it’s basically a remake of A New Hope; the way it isn’t that much of a remake of A New Hope; why ring theory and parallelism makes all this OK anyway; all of its nods to the rest of the saga; that death scene; that ending; those voices in that vision; and the single greatest part of the entire movie: BB-8 giving a thumbs up.

But I won’t talk about any of that. Not now, anyway. Instead, for an angle of moderate uniqueness, I’ll talk about the five elements of the film that have been singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Editing
J.J. Abrams seems to have tricked some people into thinking he’s a great director with The Force Awakens (rather than just a helmer of workmanlike adequacy (when he’s not indulging his lens flare obsession, at which point he’s not workmanlike but is inadequate)), and I think that’s partly because it’s quite classically made. Yeah, it’s in 3D, but the style of shots used and — of most relevance right now — the pace of the editing help it feel in line with the previous Star Wars movies. Some of the more outrageous shots (often during action sequences) stand out precisely because they’re outside this norm. Perhaps we take for granted that Abrams delivered a movie in keeping with the rest of the series, because that’s The Right Thing To Do, but that doesn’t mean he had to do it. And the transitional wipes are there too, of course.

Score
Ah, John Williams — 83 years old and still going strong. Or still going, at any rate. I’m not the most musically-minded viewer, unless something really stands out to me. I don’t remember anything in Williams’ Force Awakens score standing out. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but I didn’t notice anything new that has the impact of The Imperial March or Duel of the Fates (for all of the prequels’ faults, they at least gave us that). In Oscar terms, it’s apparently not looking so hot for Williams either: his return to a galaxy far, far away is being trumped by Ennio Morricone’s return to the West.

Sound Mixing & Sound Editing
No one knows what the difference is between these two categories. I’m not even sure that people who work in the industry know. As a layperson, it’s also the kind of thing you tend to only notice when it’s been done badly. The Force Awakens’ sound was not bad. It all sounded suitably Star Wars-y, as far as I could tell. That’s about all I could say for it. It feels like these are categories that get won either, a) on a sweep, or b) on a whim, so who knows who’ll take them on the night?

Visual Effects
CGI is everywhere nowadays, and at the top end of the game it seems like it’s much-for-muchness in the photorealism department. So what dictates the best of the best, the most award-worthy? Well, innovations are still being made, they’re just less apparent in the end product, it would seem: reportedly there are a load of workflow-type innovations behind the scenes on Star Wars, which improved consistency, as well as some better ways of achieving things that were already achievable.

Nonetheless, for a franchise with which they have a long, close history, it’s understandable that ILM pulled out all their tricks here — fairly literally: they even used forced perspective to extend some sets, rather than the now-standard digital set extension (green screen + CG background). Most notably, a lot of BB-8 was done with working models and puppetry. Of course that’s still computer aided, be it with wire and rod removal or some bits of animation, but it still lends the droid greater presence and physicality. That kind of grounded, make-it-real mindset pervades — the effects team exercised “restraint […] applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy,” according to this article from Thompson on Hollywood. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett says that attitude was about being “very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening.”

In terms of whether it will win or not, well, take your pick of the predictors. Some say Fury Road will sweep the technical categories, presumably in lieu of it winning any of the big-ticket prizes. Star Wars was the big winner at the Visual Effects Society awards though, which have predicted the Oscar on nine of the past 13 occasions. The times it’s failed have generally been prestige films that happen to have effects kicking blockbusters off their pedestal, like Hugo beating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Interstellar beating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the Academy clearly hates those damned dirty apes). With The Revenant taking secondary honours at VES, perhaps that’ll be an unlikely Oscar victor.

In truth, I don’t think any of those are the best things about The Force Awakens. What really works for it are the characters, the relationships, the pace of the story (rehashed or not), the overall tone. It was never going to get major awards in the categories that recognise those achievements (acting, writing, directing), and, frankly, those elements aren’t gone about in an awards-grabbing fashion anyway. In the name of blockbuster entertainment, however, they’re all highly accomplished.

With the good ship Star Wars relaunched under a sure hand and with a surfeit of familiarity to help steady the ride, hopefully future Episodes can really push the boat out.

5 out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

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.

The Two Faces of January (2014)

2016 #15
Hossein Amini | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English, Greek & Turkish | 12 / PG-13

The writer of Drive (and co-writer of Snow White and the Huntsman and 47 Ronin, but maybe he’d prefer we didn’t mention those) moves into the director’s chair with this Patricia Highsmith adaptation. Best know for her Ripley (as in Talented Mr.) tales, this is instead the story of a young American man, Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who, while working as a tour guide in Greece, falls in with middle-aged American couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst). Apparently on holiday, they look like an easy mark for Rydal’s somewhat-con-ish moneymaking practices, but events soon transpire to reveal the pair’s secrets, and Rydal’s greed draws him deeper into their affairs.

Amini has picked some quality material for his directorial debut. The storyline is pretty straightforward, but it’s driven by some interesting characters with complex motivations. You’re never entirely sure what’s driving Rydal and Chester, even if it may appear obvious; and sometimes it can be as much of a twist that a character didn’t have a better plan as it is when their implausibly-intricate machinations are unveiled. It helps that the film has a pair of quality actors in these roles, who effortlessly bring believability to even the slightly-far-fetched elements of the narrative. This is only the second thing I’ve seen where Isaac has made an impression (the other being The Force Awakens; I’d forgotten he was in Robin Hood and Sucker Punch), but I can see why everyone’s calling him one to watch.

If Dunst doesn’t leave as much of a mark as the two chaps, it’s only because Colette is a subtler-still character. Some people reckon The Two Faces of January has a thin story and no development of its characters, but I can’t help but feel it was too subtle for such critics. On the surface it might just seem like Colette is the dim-blonde wife, going along with her husband whatever happens and flirting with their sexy tour guide, but there’s clearly more going on under the surface. How much does she really know about Chester’s actions? Is she an innocent bystander, or is she involved? Is it harmless flirting with Rydal, or are Chester’s drunken suspicions on the money?

By choosing to set the film in the novel’s original 1960s timeframe, Amini adds instant style and class to the whole picture. Didn’t everything look classier back then? I mean, Chester wears linen suits and Panama hats, not T-shirts, shorts, and a baseball cap. It just wouldn’t be the same set today. Even the locations look straight out of the ’60s, even though they’re hundreds or thousands of years old and the film was shot this decade. Marcel Zyskind’s attractive cinematography is surely to thank for that. Again, it’s an element I’ve heard some criticise as boring or plain, which (much like the above views on plot and character) I just don’t understand. It’s not showy or show-off-y, but that’s part of what works. It lets the natural beauty of the locations speak for themselves, with classical compositions and rich lighting.

The era of the setting also helps emphasise the film’s Hitchcockian overtones, which given Highsmith’s other most-famous work is Strangers on a Train (filmed by Hitch, of course) is perhaps an obvious point of comparison, but by no means an inappropriate or negative one. As the narrative twists and turns, tightening the tension ever more, you think the Master of Suspense would’ve been quite pleased if this had been one of his pictures.

Filming this particular Highsmith novel was a long-held ambition for Amini (he first tried to acquire the rights after his big-screen writing debut, Jude, back in 1996). Such much-awaited dreams can sometimes lead to poor results, thanks to a rose-tinted perspective or close-minded obsession, but on other occasions the lengthy preparation pays off. The Two Faces of January is most certainly a case of the latter, a ceaselessly classy, subtly complex thriller that’s very rewarding for those open to its numerous charms.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of The Two Faces of January is on Film4 tomorrow, Sunday 31st, at 9pm.