Alienation: Cerebral sci-fi will divide viewers
By: Matt Brunson
In the same manner as high-school yearbooks that include such senior superlatives as Most Likely to Succeed, Annihilation should come branded with the designation Most Likely to Clear Theaters. It will likely remain the 2018 equivalent of what Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was to 2017 cinema: a metaphoric mind-bender that will find favor with select moviegoers while absolutely alienating everyone else.
To be sure, Annihilation isn’t quite as successful as mother! — neither is it in the same league as Ex Machina, the previous film from writer-director Alex Garland. But for those who can climb aboard its wavelength, it will provide enough challenging sights and sounds to clutter the mind and possibly even prompt a second viewing.
Loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel — the first of a trilogy, although Garland didn’t read the other two books until after completing his standalone screenplay as they hadn’t yet been published — Annihilation is (to paraphrase Winston Churchill … or was it Gary Oldman?) a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. With a framing structure that lays out clues as carefully as Hansel and Gretel with their bread crumbs, the story opens on a quarantined Lena (Natalie Portman), a biology professor and former soldier, explaining to a hazmat suit-clad figure (Benedict Wong) and his colleagues the events that transpired after she entered Area X, a vast swath of stateside territory that has been taken over by an alien presence.
Also known as The Shimmer, Area X has been repeatedly entered over the past three years by various military men, with none of them ever returning. Correction: One finally made it back — that would be Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who returned after a whole year and immediately lapsed into a coma. Stating that “I owe him,” Lena opts to join the latest team to enter the forbidden zone, this one comprised entirely of women with a medical rather than military bent. But immediately after penetrating The Shimmer, Lena and her colleagues — psychologist and team leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) and anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) — immediately encounter death and destruction.
Or should that be self-destruction? Although the film’s motives and meanings are in constant flux, an indisputable theme involves inward annihilation, whether of people, places, or the planet itself. To reveal specifics would be to traffic in spoilers, but suffice to say that Garland pulls no punches in either his metaphysical musings or in his visual extremities. Science fiction cinema often borrows from itself, and Annihilation seemingly draws from such various genre signposts as Ridley Scott’s Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing and perhaps even Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Yet certain images — some grotesque, others gorgeous — prove to be uniquely the film’s own.
The aura of unease maintained by Garland dissipates during a busy climax that might prove to be problematic even for many of the film’s fans, and the nature of the final shot was pretty much telegraphed by the picture’s halfway mark. Yet even here, the existential implications outweigh the physical evidence — come to think of it, it’s really the only way a movie of this nature should end.
IT’S NO MATCH for a marathon evening of Apples-to-Apples with assorted friends and loved ones, but as a date-night option, a person could do worse than Game Night.
A reasonably diverting comedy that hits all the expected beats, this stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as Max and Annie, a couple who routinely invite their friends over to their house to partake in Parcheesi, Charades, Monopoly and seemingly every other game this side of Spin the Bottle. Kicking up the festivities a notch is Max’s highly competitive brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who arranges a murder-mystery party for the gang. Brooks ends up getting kidnapped, a wrinkle that amuses the participants until they realize that the snatch wasn’t part of the game and that Brooks’ life is actually in danger.
Sporting as many twists as David Fincher’s comparatively more somber The Game, Game Night works best when it focuses on the personalities of its characters and meanders when it pays too much attention to the particulars of the plot (which doesn’t really hold up to post-viewing scrutiny anyway). Bateman and McAdams enjoy an easy rapport together and stay through the final credits for a capper to the running gag involving no less than Denzel Washington.