MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Alex Garland. Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Metaphysical science fiction has been around for a while, especially when an author can mix together the concept of a higher power with the idea of Earth being visited by another species. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968 is just one example of this genre. 2016’s Arrival was an exceptional film that used time and space to create a meditation on grief, love and human connections wrapped up in a scientific and linguistic attempt to communicate with visitors from another world. Writer-director John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing (itself a remake of a Howard Hawks film from 1951) was a creepy and disturbing film about a particularly nasty invader who wanted to infiltrate Planet Earth by duplicating our life forms but somehow couldn’t quite pull it off.
Annihilation, based loosely on the Nebula Award winning first book in The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, is writer-director Alex Garland’s second attempt at deep thinking science fiction, following 2014’s Ex Machina.
As the film begins, a ball of fire that appears to be a meteor hits a lighthouse and creates a strange phenomenon that is called Area X, a mysterious and slowly expanding region of strange vegetation and stranger animal life. Teams of male scientists have been sent in to investigate the area working out of the government’s Southern Reach facility. Area X is separated by a translucent and penetrable wall that is called The Shimmer. No radio signals have been received from the exploration parties. There have been no survivors with the exception of Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of Lena, a renowned biologist (Portman). Kane was missing for so long that Lena assumed that he was dead, spending much time in deep depression. But something is not quite right. Kane is not quite himself and he appears to be quite sick, so he is placed in medical isolation.
Now it is time to send in some new surveyors. This time a team of five women will venture into Area X. Hey, if the guys can’t do it, why not try Girl Power? Annihilation is that rare film that pulls off the feat of being both feminist and patronizing to women at the same time. It is also undone by a screenplay filled with what I like to call Dumb Science (details that are so stupid that they get in the way of enjoying an otherwise intriguing premise). There are too many to list here, but they include a classroom lecture to medical students at Johns Hopkins University delivered at a third-grade level (“When cells divide they start from one cell, to two, to four, and so on…”), scenes of the crew touching and handling strange plant life without face masks or gloves, and the ridiculous makeup of the all-woman delegation (including the spouse of a possibly damaged previous explorer).
A deeper subtext in the film touches upon how all life inevitably begins to fall apart through illness, cell degeneration and old age. Are we created to advance or to live out our days with diminishing returns? This theme would have been more effective had it been intimated rather than told to the viewing audience.
Annihilation is so close to being a good film, you may still want to check it out. A better movie (and an obvious influence on this one) is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a 1979 Russian masterpiece that just happens to be 165 minutes long. A briefer trip to an alien encounter to consider is Chuck Jones’ 1953 Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, clocking in at 7 minutes. Well, that’s the long and the short of it!
Three halos: Visually impressive but ultimately disappointing intellectual exercise.
Two pitchforks: Gruesome imagery, some swearing, brief and thematically useless sex scene.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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