Annihilation (2018)

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Arriving on Netflix, is this bold and engagingly strange science fiction from Alex Garland. It’s arguably one of the finer films of this genre I’ve ever seen, questioning the audience with its intelligent themes of rationality and life.

After a figure from Lena’s (Natalie Portman) life comes back into the fold, she ends up at a government facility close to a glistening barrier known as The Shimmer which is expanding. Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads Lena and three others into this weird anomaly to try and stop it reaching civilisation and to hopefully uncover exactly what it is.

Alex Garland has been writing screenplays since 2002 and after his blistering debut directorial work on 2015’s ‘Ex Machina’, this was a movie I was eagerly awaiting. Garland has managed to capture the traumas and oddities of a strange new world from within Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. As this film goes along, there’s a fantastic sense of slow-burning tension that doesn’t always need to pay off with big action because he directs in such a way that chills to the core and makes this environment feel visceral.

A sci-fi with plenty of intrigue and interesting ideas aren’t always common to come by, so gladly this is an exception, in the same vein as the smartly concocted ‘Arrival’. It’s a film that I think deserves to go down as a classic in its genre, as it grips like a row of razor sharp teeth sinking into you, as you get hooked onto the creepy air of unease and confusion that roams this altering landscape.

The Shimmer itself is a world of melding possibilities leading to some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen this year, ones that I utterly wished I could have seen on the big screen, but again Paramount offloaded one of theirs to be released by streaming juggernaut Netflix. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is sublime and truly keeps you on the edge of your seat as we trek through somewhere, that is at once stunning and dripping with mystery.

There are some unnerving moments within ‘Annihilation’ which I won’t divulge any further as to avoid spoilers, but I will say, what lurks in The Shimmer certainly builds a scary level to the back and forth narrative with Lena. Also, the final act is absolutely incredible. My mouth was agape for the duration and my skin was layered with goosebumps, in a lighthouse set sequence I can only describe as hauntingly glorious and terrifying in a way that seems to burrow into your very being.

Natalie Portman is a strong presence from start to finish, her character background aptly aids her through this lush yet dangerous world of lost memories and trepidation. Portman easily acts that sense of forceful wanting and knowledgeable progression. She also carries an empathetic sadness and regret throughout, which makes her an interesting character to follow. The entire team are a formidable squad of females with enough drip fed information about their lives, to give us understanding of their choices and motivations. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Gina Rodriguez all neatly display the fraying of their minds as they descend further into The Shimmer. The latter gets a crackling turn to shine in a scene that sees her burst with an intensity, adding to the ferociousness of what happens.

‘Annihilation’ is a masterful movie and one I will definitely be watching again. It carries a quiet menace as the unknown is explored and identity is questioned more and more.

8.5/10

 

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Ex Machina (2015)

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Tremendous, impressive, gorgeous and worrying, this sci-fi thriller is an astounding debut feature for Alex Garland and every second is worth the watch. Tech and futuristic developments are scratched away slowly but surely leaving the fundamental elements of troubling reliance on robotics for all to see.

At work one day, coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finds out he’s won a lottery, entitling him to visit the quarters of his company’s CEO director, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). There he has the chance to sign a contract letting him see a wondrous new creation of A.I crafted by Nathan. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is there as a test but what other things will Caleb uncover in his week long stay?

I swear that every frame in this movie is beautiful, whether Rob Hardy fills moments with the entrapping progression of Nathan’s home or lovingly squares on lush green landscapes, this film is magnificent to look at. Considering it goes into the thriller genre, it has a calming influence running throughout, a soft almost blur like quality that can be taken as welcoming you into a false sense of security and also in matching the perfect softness of Ava’s design.

This film can draw relations to other movies, as I’m sure it will and as I too shall do. This by no means takes anything away from the story as it does it’s own special thing but the undercurrent of tension and playing God feels the same as ‘The Skin I Live In’ and the far away resort and tech savvy world feels akin to ‘The Machine’. This film however takes these moulds and makes a more interesting take on the motive of generated technology. The will to survive is examined through meetings with Ava and stirring dialogue about power, Turing tests, playing people along or not and the possibility of loving something not human.

The direction is precise and builds to a bubbling and great crescendo, where the end is satisfying, at least I felt it was the right way to have this film go. Alex Garland who has background experience in suspense and thrills from scripting the work of ’28 Days Later’ uses his knowledge to build tension while keeping some seductive romanticism to it all. The film is as smartly constructed as the screenplay is and Garland is to credit for both. A behind the camera presence to keep an eye on for sure.

The way characters are studied, not just the robotic element of Ava, is fascinating to watch. The flaws of us as people are stunningly done and both Caleb and Nathan are subjects of science in seeing how they work against one another. Ava is amazingly executed and the visual effects of her body are glorious, the make-up team behind this work must be applauded, their prosthetic achievement gives Ava a unique look making her a sci-fi character to remember.

Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury are to credit for a skin-crawling score that can switch from placid and misty, echoing the other wordly lush mountains surrounding Nathan’s building, to a more buzzing troublesome sound as the film twists into the horror realm. It’s certainly plays on the electronic element and as the music rises at points it puts goosebumps over your arms.

The only little weakness that I came away with is, that a couple of developments in the script are predictable. It doesn’t lose the cleverness it just lost any shock factor a better twist could have given. But this is honestly the tiniest of critiques, the story is just as thrilling and thoughtful knowing the danger around the corner.

Domhnall Gleeson gives a great performance in this ‘Black Mirror’-esque tale of suspicion in technology. Facial tells and held gazes all play into his role as he begins the journey of discovery into what an A.I can do to someone. The more nervous side of things plays nicely against the muscular scheming Nathan. Oscar Isaac is powerful and keeps giving off degrees of menacing intent through his towering way of trying to charm. The silent glances or flips in how he speaks to Caleb make him a worrying Dr. Frankenstein figure to witness. Alicia Vikander is a star to look out for, her quiet approach to Ava makes her instantly likable and her plight as the real victim is played brilliantly, though the unflinching stare and half smile of Vikander never make you forget the unpredictability of her desires.

This dystopian sci-fi has many subtleties to admire as the tension of tech terror is explored. A sexy, intelligent tale with three riveting performances and a creative shifting tone from debut director Garland.

8/10