We’ve discussed in other reviews, more than a few, my love for Sci Fi. So when I saw the visually arresting trailer for this film I knew I had to see it. It wasn’t a well maybe, it was a must. First you have Natalie Portman who is always engaging and lights up the screen regardless of role since I first saw her in Leon The Professional. I’ve previously said Oscar Isaac needs to be cast in everything. My statement stands. Then you see directed by Alex Garland, whose screenplay I adored for the 2012 Dredd, 28 Days Later deserves its praise, and of course one of my favourite films this decade Ex Machina. The real question is –
How could this movie possibly go wrong?
The film is based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer with screenplay by Alex Garland, who as mentioned before directs. The story surrounds a team of women scientists who explore an extraterrestrial field that no one else has returned from. Inside they confront bizarre and magnificent mutations of both flora and fauna – all in the search of a two very simple questions. What is happening, and why? The answers of course are hardly simple or we wouldn’t have any drama.
Garland is one of the true auteurs in modern film making, and while he doesn’t have Guillermo Del Toro’s distinctive stylings, or Wes Anderson’s quirk, he definitively has a style. He understands, with Cinematographer Rob Hardy, how to move the camera for the right effect. How to get compelling and still subdued performances from his actors. Working with production designer Mark Digby, who gave us a true MetroCity One in Dredd, they created a unique world that was both ours and alien at the same time. This movie lives up to its visual hype and is driven forward by those visuals which only get more surreal like watching a series of Salvador Dali paintings come to life.
The actors of course are fine, they couldn’t be anything else really. Portman carries the film on her more than capable shoulders as our lead character Lena. Jennifer Jason Leigh is positively subdued as Dr. Ventress. Swedish actress Tuva Novotny makes a surprising mark as she moves through the film as Cass Sheppard. My favourite Valkyrie, Tessa Thompson, delivers her own unique performance showing a range we didn’t get to see in Thor but is no less fascinating to watch as our physicist Josie Radek. They are all fine. The cast is small. The director is good with small casts. He excels at them. I question some of the character names, as the novels characters didn’t have them, to see if they are other sci fi references, such as Asajj Ventress (Star Wars) and me..I mean Commander Shepard (Mass Effect), but that isn’t a fault at all.
What is though I think, is the message of the movie. Science fiction should make you think. Should make you wonder. Should start conversation. While this film does make me want to talk about it, I am not sure how I feel about it or what to say specifically about it beyond the technical components above. Sure it is one of the most visually compelling sci fi movies in awhile, even Arrival was washed out to be nearly black and white at times; which I picked on then. There is contrast here between the outside world and what’s inside and how colour, light, and life interplay with their surroundings, but visuals cannot be everything. I used the Dali reference above intentionally, as the movie felt like I was watching a series of magnificently crafted paintings for two hours, with an occasional drop of dialogue to remind me this isn’t an art gallery. The movie kind of suffers for this as it’s pacing moves seemingly at a crawl so that you can enjoy and appreciate all that you see. There is a lot to appreciate, with creature and set designs unlike anything I’ve seen and ideas introduced that we have never quite seen like this. Another flaw comes in the sound design in act three. You shouldn’t typically notice how sound is done in a movie like this, but there’s a choice in the final act that ejected me from the moment rather than draw me in.
Annihilation is a solid, technically well crafted film with every dollar spent on production design, sets, and creatures used to the best possible calibre; yet it somehow misses the mark for me. I am not sure if I didn’t get the message they were trying to sell as this is science fiction – not horror, or they truly failed on delivery. I really want to like this movie a lot more, but I feel that it trips over its own art and crashes through its delivery leaving me asking questions; but not the ones it wants me to.
Should I see it?
Well…maybe. I think there’s a lot here, but it is a very slow movie that doesn’t really nail the landing.
Would you see it again though?
Maybe at home with some friends this time to talk about it beyond the eye candy that is the design.
So you’re buying it?
The magic 8 ball says, most likely.
Anything else to share on this?
I think I am going to be in the minority on this one. I finished writing my review and broke one of my rules and started skimming other reviews online before publishing my own. I agree it is weird, surreal, again beautiful, but I am missing any exploration of humanity in this or our own world view. If anything I would say it’s a touch nihilistic if the message I did take from it is correct, but in no way did I find it scary even in it’s vast implications throughout.
So again I think I didn’t get what they were selling or others are reading more into this than I saw; which brings me back to the maybe go see it and me watching it again with friends for the discussion vs. a solo run.