Sunday, March 11, 2018

Movie Review: ANNIHILATION (2018)

As those who know me in real life know, I sometimes criticize Hollywood for its lack of originality and propensity for remakes. So when Hollywood makes something original--okay, this is an adaptation of the science fiction novel by Jeff VanderMeer rather than a purely original work--it's important to support it in order to encourage more of them.

So last week I saw the film Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman. How was it? Find out...

The Plot

College professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is grieving for her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who has been sent on a covert military operation and has gone missing. Her grief is soon interrupted by his sudden reappearance at their home. He can't remember very much and soon begins suffering from a mysterious illness. On the way to the hospital, their ambulance is ambushed by some Men In Black types, who take Lena and Kane to a mysterious base.

It turns out Kane had volunteered for a mission into a mysterious "Area X" in western Florida where an alien presence from a fallen meteor has spread throughout the nearby land--and is threatening to spread into inhabited areas. Nobody who has been sent to explore the afflicted area has ever returned--except for Kane, and nobody is sure how. Another team, consisting of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), is being prepped to enter Area X, and Lena persuades them to allow her to accompany them, citing her experiences in the military and as a biologist. The clock is ticking with Kane apparently dying, and Lena wants answers.

They pass through the mysterious "Shimmer" bounding the area to find a place where time flows differently and where the plants and animals are being mutated by alien forces. It's a place of beauty and horror and as the women go deeper, things get weirder and the body count rises.

The Good

*The movie is never boring. There were a couple moments where I was tempted to look at my watch, but I never did so. That's pretty rare these days. It moves along at a quick clip and between the beauty and the creepy (I'll get to both of these later), there's always something to grab and hold your attention.

*There's a lot of well-done subtext, including depicting two characters' fraying romance by showing their reading choices--one is reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the other is reading a magazine.

*The acting, particularly by Portman and Rodriguez, is really good. Although everybody in the group goes into Area X armed, Portman, playing an actual veteran, shows that she knows what she's doing with her weapon. There's a sexual scene partway through the film where she does a good job conveying her conflict and feelings--or lack thereof--as well. I have never heard myself or anybody else discussing acting during a sex scene of all things. And as they go deeper into Area X, Rodriguez gets convincingly scarier.

*Hollywood's depiction of women is so hit-and-miss that the Bechdel Test was invented to analyze it. The film's main cast is almost entirely female, several of them are scientists, and they go into Area X on a scientific mission, so it passes the test with flying colors.

*The film is visually beautiful. The realm within the shimmer is full of color and strange life, all of which is very well-done. It gets downright psychedelic at times. The "Shimmer" has engulfed formerly inhabited areas--someone's small house by the lake and an old military base--and seeing what happens when nature reclaims human works is pretty interesting in and of itself.

*The visuals of the film convey grossness and horror as readily as beauty. I'm not going to be specific to avoid ruining anything for anybody, but there're some truly squicky bits in the videos left by previous expeditions that the women find, as well as when they find the previous expedition's members. One of the mutated creatures of Area X is quite scary, and when it opens its mouth and starts making noise, it sounds disturbing.

Seriously, the art director, cinematographer, and special effects people need to earn some awards for this.

*The ending is rather ambiguous. I'm not going to go any farther for reasons of spoilers, but it's something that can certainly generate conversation.

The Bad

*There are some moments of weak dialogue that's too on-the-nose and doesn't sound like how people actually talk. For example, a character is cheating with another and one of them asks if the other's spouse, "knows of our affair." It'd be more realistic if the character asks if the wrong spouse knows "about us" or if they "know." That bit was so poorly written that I was all, "Huh?" right in the middle of the movie.

*Sometimes the sound is too loud. The music, though it's important in making the film as trippy and mind-bending as it is, is sometimes overpowering.

*During the climax, some of the more energetic manifestations of the Shimmer look a little too obviously CGI.

The Verdict

I doubt I'll see it a second time, at least anytime soon, but it's a very weird and well-done movie. I strongly recommend seeing it, not only because it's good but because it'll encourage more book adaptations and original material from the Powers That be. 9.0 out of 10.

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