Tuesday 1 May 2018
Arming Shimmer Man
Directed by Alex Garland
Warning: Very minor spoilers, I guess.
Annihilation is Alex Garland’s adaptation of the first novel in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.
Now, I tend to find Alex Garland one of those writers/directors who are a bit frustrating. I loved Dredd (reviewed here - it was recently made known on the internet that he was responsible for ghost-directing it) but I had real problems with Ex Machina (reviewed here) and I think it stems from the same issue. Something I believe he shares with Doctor Who writer Stephen Moffat. He tends to have great set ups which arouse the curiosity but the endings and most of the various revelations along the way tend to be more than just a little bit obvious and, alas, although it’s based on someone else’s source material, I think that this is very much the case here with Annihilation.
So we have the spectacular but, to be honest, extremely clichéd sci-fi concept inspired/borrowed from... and the writer himself denies this but it seems quite obvious to me... Boris Strugatsky and Arkady Strugatsky’s excellent science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, which was also made into a blisteringly cool science fiction movie called Stalker by one of my favourite directors, Andrei Tarkovsky. This is the concept of an area on Earth which has been rendered or declared off limits due to some kind of mysterious alien infestation. Films such as Monsters (reviewed here) have been using this as the starting blocks for their own tales for years and Annihilation does the same thing, I think, by taking this as an opening set up.
The film starts off with Natalie Portman’s ex-military biology specialist Lena returning from a mission into the forbidden zone of the tale, a place which is named The Shimmer. This scene, where she is interrogated by Benedict Wong (in some kind of bio protection suit) is the framing scene which we keep going back to while the tale unfolds... as the returning Lena tells her story of the days (while months pass outside) she has spent in The Shimmer.
We then cut to a flashback scene from before the main narrative (the main narrative is the flashback technically but it’s where we keep coming back to) of her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, filmed by him at the same time he was shooting scenes for Star Wars - The Last Jedi on the set very near to where this was shot. He has unexpectedly returned home, missing presumed dead, from his top secret military mission after being absent for a year. But something doesn’t seem right and when he starts to slowly, internally combust, the ambulance that Lena and he are riding in to get him to a hospital is intercepted by the military and she wakes up in 'Area X', where the slowly expanding Shimmer can be viewed from a, relatively, safe distance.
At this point, you probably have already figured out what the main end twist/scene of the movie is going to be but I won’t elaborate on it here since some people will enjoy the journey of getting there and might be put off if they realise the answer to things are that easy.
Anyway, after hearing that every other mission from The Shimmer has never returned and only her husband has come back from the last one, Lena realises the only way to help him is to go into whatever is in The Shimmer so she can figure out something to keep her husband alive. So she goes in with the tough cookie team leader of the project, played by Jennifer Jason-Leigh, plus three other military women played by Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny. And the film follows the journey of these five women as they try to trek to the lighthouse where The Shimmer was first started.
On the way, of course, new perils await them and their slowly diminishing group try to survive both the strange things they see in The Shimmer comprising biological mutations and, also, each other... as paranoia and madness begin to creep in.
Well the five ladies are all great with their performances in this and the storyline is refreshingly surreal, in some ways. It doesn’t hurt that the cinematography and set design are never short of being, at the very least, visually interesting. I just wish this film could have got a cinema release in this country as opposed to me having to watch it on a television set, where I have to say the potential power of the movie seemed somewhat diminished.
For example, Garland seems to like using vertical lines to section off areas of the widescreen aspect ratio and use them to frame characters and objects... as a lot of the more interesting directors do, I've noticed in recent years (as global DVD and Blu Ray sales has made more international stuff in the correct aspect ratio readily available). I don’t know if this is a specific fingerprint of his visual signature or not but I did notice he had a particular leaning to crowd out or overfill one delineated section and leave the other remaining sections with hardly anything in them for quite a bit of the time. Which makes for an interesting watch as you try to figure out what part of the screen he was going to fill up next.
There is also a nice sequence with a genetically altered bear which is quite memorable. The girls have already suffered two attacks by a strange crocodile and fast moving bear in the course of the movie (and one of them certainly doesn’t survive one of these attacks). These were, it has to be said, less than surprising moments and very clumsily telegraphed by the director. However, in a sequence which is a little reminiscent of a scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing, where the most paranoid of the group has the others tied to chairs and is being particularly threatening to Natalie Portman’s character, another of the girls can be heard calling from off screen and... well I won’t give away what happens next but the juxtaposition of creature and sound emitting from its hungry maw is more than a little surreal and extremely attention grabbing. It could have gone completely the other way and been a really laugh-worthy moment but somehow the director manages to reign it all in and it’s ultimately a very effective scene.
The film is also helped by a score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, which sounds a bit like they are electronically trying to echo elements of György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna or Requiem For Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs and Orchestra... which is fine by me because those are two of my favourite pieces of music by one of my favourite composers. I just wish someone would release a proper CD of this score instead of expecting people to download it as... I’d really like to hear it away from the movie.
Ultimately, the end of the movie after Lena reaches the lighthouse and discovers its secrets are... not much of a discovery by this point in the game if you have been paying attention and the set up for the final twist is, frankly, very obvious. You kind of hope they are going to veer into different territory but it stands as it is. We all, in the house I was watching this in, saw this ending more or less from the start and so, yeah, we all felt a little deflated by the end of it, to be honest.
That being said, Annihilation is not a bad movie and I’d certainly place it higher than Ex Machina in this director’s work. I might even go on to read the novels at some point too because, hopefully, there’s more to the story than just this exercise in the obvious. Maybe the good stuff coming from what is essentially an intriguing concept turns up later in the novels? Certainly, if you liked this wrier/director’s other work then you will probably get something out of this one. Not a terrible movie and quite entertaining but it's not going to be making any of my end of year lists, I suspect.