Friday, February 23, 2018

Annihilation: Slow death

Annihilation (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, gore, profanity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.23.18

Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice.

Author/editor/literary critic Jeff VanderMeer apparently prefers cellular madness.

After narrowly surviving an encounter with an unexpectedly oversized alligator, cellular
biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is disturbed to find that its mouth contains far too
many rows of teeth.
His Nebula Award-winning 2014 novel, Annihilation, is — to say the least — a challenging but thoroughly fascinating read.

Director/scripter Alex Garland’s big-screen adaptation is thoughtful, absorbing, unsettling and even scary. For a time.

Unfortunately, he lets everything go to hell in the third act. And I don’t mean that in a positive way.

Certain science fiction films suffer from this problem: a terrific premise and suspenseful development, with — ultimately — nowhere to go. Garland’s take on Annihilation reminds me strongly of 1974’s Phase IV, a low-budget little flick that began with a similarly captivating premise but concluded with a nonsensically metaphysical climax (literally) that only could have been concocted by somebody on mind-altering substances.

The major problem here is that Garland was hell-bent on delivering a resolution that’s wholly at odds with VanderMeer’s novel ... which is only the first book in a trilogy. Garland’s “solution” to this dilemma isn’t merely unsatisfying; it makes total hash of what takes place during the first two acts.

Garland is best known as the writer/director behind 2014’s brilliant Ex Machina, a deliciously unsettling sci-fi saga that holds together superbly, up to a disturbing final scene that perfectly enhances everything that has come before. Too bad he couldn’t bring that rigorous logic and plot coherence to this one.

Former soldier-turned-cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) has mourned the loss of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), for a full year. Flashbacks and passing remarks reveal that he’s active military, subject to abrupt special-ops missions that he’s not able to share with his wife. Now long missing after having deployed on ... something ... Lena reluctantly believes him dead.

Until he turns up in their bedroom one day, disoriented and with no apparent memory of how he got there, or where he has been, or who he was with, or ... anything.

It gets worse. Following a chaotic blur of activity, Lena wakens in a heavily guarded military compound led by a tight-lipped psychologist named Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She reveals that Kane was a member of the most recent mission sent into the “shimmer,” a sinister and mysterious environmental disaster zone that is inexorably expanding along a thus-far deserted section of the Atlantic coastline.

(We know it was caused by a meteor that crashed to Earth, striking a lighthouse at what now has been tagged as the point of contact; we witness this as the movie begins.)

The shimmer — dubbed “Area X” — has been studied for three years now. Nothing can stop its expansion. Nobody knows what is happening within. Everybody who has gone “inside” has failed to return. Except Kane.

The previous incursion parties were male and exclusively military. Ventress decides to take a different approach, by leading a female team of scientist-soldiers: anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). Lena, desperate to know what happened to her husband, insists on coming along. Ventress doesn’t argue.

So far, so good ... if a bit of an eyebrow-lifter. (No sign of stronger governmental oversight? Seriously?)

The quintet passes through the softly iridescent “curtain” that denotes the barrier of Area X, hikes for the day, camps for the night. When they waken the next morning — or so it seems — the evidence of depleted supplies suggests that they’ve been inside for at least a week. (Cue the flutter of tiny hairs on the back of our necks.)

What they discover, pushing forward, is as troubling as it is enchanting: a radical biological crisis foreshadowed by the brief lecture we heard Lena give earlier, in her capacity as a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Garland builds on this with fiendish subtlety; production designer Mark Digby and Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor (for Ex Machina) Andrew Whitehurst have much to do with the chilling, creepy-crawly verisimilitude of what follows.

It looks and feels alarmingly possible, even probable: basic biology run amok, with just enough smash-cut surprises to satisfy viewers who like their sci-fi seasoned with Alien-style mayhem.

And then ... and then ...

... it just gets silly. (With a nod to H.G. Wells.)

Portman supplies more persuasive emotional gravitas than the film deserves; her Lena is driven by a believable blend of anguish, confusion and dogged scientific curiosity. That said, even she can’t sell a sidebar story — revealed via additional flashbacks — that involves a Johns Hopkins colleague (David Gyasi), and seems to have been dragged in from an entirely different film.

Leigh badly overplays Ventress’ aloofness and — once inside the shimmer —  angry stoicism, making her more a parody of a human being, than a credible character. Her tight-lipped superiority quickly grow tiresome.

Rodriguez’s Anya is spunky, flirty and ruggedly capable: a gung-ho soldier who gives these proceedings some welcome jovial spark. It’s a solid “straight” performance from an actress currently best known as the star of TV’s Jane the Virgin.

Thompson’s Josie is the team’s thoughtful heart: a quiet woman not given to grand gestures, who hides a ferocious intelligence behind jam-jar glasses. She’s the one we worry about; she seems the most vulnerable and ill-equipped, emotionally, to deal with what they’re confronting.

Novotny’s Sheppard, finally, is the unofficial peacemaker: the watchful one who has the most accurate bead on her companions.

Benedict Wong, barely recognized within a hazmat suit, pops up periodically during a framing device that robs the film of some suspense.

Comparisons between this film and 2016’s Arrival are inevitable; both are ambitiously mounted “first contact” sagas anchored by strong female protagonists, who attempt to make sense of an otherworldly incursion that defies known logic. The core narrative difference is the distinction between intelligent design and brutal biology.

But the other core difference is more telling. Arrival holds together despite an equally chaotic third act; it doesn’t muddy the narrative waters by pulling an eyebrow-lifting (forgive me) deus ex machina rabbit out of thin air.

Which, in the case of Annihilation, pretty much ruins everything.

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