Episode 099: Annihilation

In this week’s episode we are talking about what could be the most divisive film of 2018, although it’s still early in the year. Alex Garland’s latest film Annihilation, based on the novel of the same name by Jeff Vandermer, brings with it a lot of questions, both from the story, and the audience. We wrestle with a bit of both in our discussion and give our reactions to the incredible creation that is The Shimmer. We also offer some quick thoughts on Duncan Jones’ new film Mute and the incredible documentary Five Came Back.

What We’ve Been Up To – 0:02:02

(Aaron – Mute, Five Came Back)

Annihilation Review – 0:09:23

The Connecting Point – 0:55:19


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MOVIE REVIEW: Annihilation

ANNIHILATION (2018)

GOING IN

Alex Garland writes great stories. He has dabbled in all kinds of science fiction, from the horrific in 28 Days Later… to the dramatic/romantic in Never Let Me Go to adapting a comic book superhero in Dredd and most notably for penning and directing my favorite film of 2015, the stunning Ex Machina. Now Garland is adapting Annihilation, the Nebula Award winning first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy that Stephen King called “creepy and fascinating”. Ever since it was announced this film has been at the top of my most-anticipated list. It features quite a few favorite actors (Natalie Portman, Oscar Issac, Tessa Thompson) and the mysterious premise is ripe for exploration in that speculative sci-fi manner that Garland excels at. I expect to be wowed visually, probably a little bit confused, and I absolutely can’t wait.

1 Hour and 55 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

The plot is simple: A group of soldiers enters an environmental disaster zone and only one soldier, Kane (Oscar Isaac), comes back out alive, though he is grievously injured. In an attempt to save his life, his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist, volunteers for another expedition into the zone to figure out what happened to him.

The story of Annihilation opens with Lena being interviewed by Lomax (Benedict Wong), who he is we never really learn, in a containment room. He is asking questions about what happened inside The Shimmer and the vast majority of her answers are “I don’t know,” though there is some foreshadowing that occurs here that viewers may realize later. This theme of “I don’t know” continues throughout the film’s opening scenes as Kane arrives home unexpectedly and answers most of his wife’s questions with that same phrase. It’s at that point that I should have known not to expect many answers from Garland’s script. “I don’t know” is where it starts, and in many ways where it finishes.

It wasn’t until Lena and her team enter The Shimmer that I started enjoying the film. The opening section was slow to reveal anything of substance and Lena’s scientific background making her a perfect fit for the expedition team felt too convenient. Lena’s team is a group of women. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the head of the Southern Reach agency in charge of researching The Shimmer and the leader of the team that enters. Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) also are scientists and create a team that is well-rounded in its knowledge. There is also an element of self-destructiveness to each woman, as Sheppard points out that coming into The Shimmer (where only one person has ever emerged from alive) isn’t something you do if you’re happy with your life. Throughout the course of the film, discovering just what each character’s motivation is and how it is affected by what they experience is an important element of the story.

Unfortunately, it’s this character development that I found so lacking as to derail my enjoyment of the film. This is cerebral science fiction that intends to be esoteric. Garland is not interested in making a lot of sense and scenes don’t always tie together in a meaningful way. While the ladies provide an interesting collection of personalities to explore with, I never had the emotional connection that made me care what happened to them and felt like some very good actresses were mostly wasted. Likewise, I did not find myself caring much for the fate of the world at hand, despite The Shimmer’s consistent expansion being framed as dangerous to all life on planet earth. I did feel that some connection was made with Lena, and that makes sense because she’s the most developed by far, but she just isn’t very likable and thus her fate had little impact.

Now, some will fall head over heels for the kind of ambiguity the film serves up in spades. Its visuals are certainly mesmerizing. The beauty of The Shimmer and the horror of things like a bear-beast are equally staggering. The story also goes in a much darker place than I ever expected – in that Event Horizon or third act of Sunshine kind of way. It is fantastically creepy and had me cringing a few times out of shock. I applaud Paramount for letting Garland make the film he envisioned. At the same time, it’s really no surprise that this film didn’t test well with audiences and was sold to Netflix in order to recover most of its budget. It’s likely not going to be received well by mainstream audiences.

VERDICT

My love of Alex Garland’s writing created expectations that proved to be too high for Annihilation to meet. Though I enjoyed elements of the film and respect its incredible craftsmanship, I simply did not care enough about what happened. This lack of investment in its characters made it not worth the effort required for me to figure out its puzzles. I have no doubt that repeat viewings would help unpack further pieces of the mystery, but despite how well the film is made, I just didn’t enjoy watching it very much and don’t see myself rushing to experience it again anytime soon.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Song to Song

Song to Song (2017)

Song to Song is the latest film from auteur Terrence Malick, one of Hollywood’s most reclusive and polarizing directors. It’s story follows a young guitarist named Faye (Rooney Mara) who begins an affair with hotshot record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), secretly hoping that his name and influence will result in a boon to her career. Soon after, she meets BV (Ryan Gosling), a singer-songwriter working with Cook, and begins a relationship with him that blossoms into something more real than anything Cook could ever provide. Over the course of the film these three interact to varying degrees. We see romance, love gained, love lost, fear, jealousy, lies, depression, and a wealth of poor choices. It is a powerful look at the pitfalls which can come with power and fame, and the dangers of building your life around those who have it. In the end, though, the film offers a sense of hope and understanding that is profoundly moving.

It has been written that Song to Song is narratively sparse, but I must wholeheartedly disagree. In fact, I consider the film to have one of the best scripts of the year. Malick’s style can be jarring at times, certainly, as he aggressively cuts between perspective and time with no explanation whatsoever, but I never found the film difficult to follow.  Whereas most films feature lengthy scenes to progress plot, what Malick does is utilize brief moments with perfectly spoken dialogue to convey where on the emotional journey a character is at a given time. These emotional changes from scene to scene serve as markers that move the story forward. When combined with the incredible, masterful cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, this creates a film that viewers can connect with and relate to, recalling fleeting memories from their own past. You won’t have to have walked the exact path of the characters in Song to Song to resonate with their experiences.

The title of Song to Song couldn’t be more appropriate. Malick’s film flows like a record as it takes you on this realistic life journey. It begins with the powerful electronic beats of South African hip hop group Die Antwood and ends with an orchestral composition from classical composer Claude Debussy. It is incredible just how well the soundtrack transitions between musical styles, all of which seem to perfectly compliment the particular scene in which they appear. And like a soundtrack, the visual cuts and editing style of Song to Song are reminiscent of listening to a soundtrack, sometimes skipping ahead… from song to song.

Where the film truly develops into something special, though, is in its final 10-20 minutes. Here the film comes together and pays off the journey by offering hope. Forgiveness and mercy are learned, and love is finally understood. The language used even evokes the well-known Biblical parable of the prodigal son. It could as much reference the return to a commitment of faith as that of a realized devotion to true love. It is in this redemption that we see the state of happiness we endlessly search for can be achieved, it just may not look like we thought it would.

Verdict

For those willing to meet Malick halfway and open themselves to engaging with the film, Song to Song offers an emotionally visceral experience. Its dialogue is lyrical poetry that works perfectly in concert with Lubezki’s stunning cinematography, an expertly balanced soundtrack, and fine acting performances all around. This may be some of the least abstract and aimless work Malick has ever produced, while also being among his best. Song to Song is a film that needs to be more than just seen, it demands to be felt.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.