Annihilation movie review

For inSing

ANNIHILATION

Director : Alex Garland
Cast : Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac
Genre : Sci-fi, horror
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 12 March 2018 (Netflix)
Rating : M18 (Violence And Disturbing Scenes)

Natalie Portman steps forth into the unknown in this sci-fi horror thriller. Portman plays Lena, a biologist and former soldier whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has vanished under mysterious circumstances. Lena learns that Kane went on a mission into ‘the Shimmer’, an otherworldly anomaly. Within the Shimmer lie all manner of mutant flora and fauna, the structure of every living thing in its boundaries transformed by a meteor which hit a lighthouse.

Lena volunteers to join an expedition into the Shimmer, with the knowledge that none who have entered before have ever left. Psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads the team, which also comprises paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and surveyor and geologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). The five women venture into the Shimmer, attempting to decipher its enigma and, more importantly, emerge alive.

Annihilation is based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. The film was adapted for the screen and directed by Alex Garland, who made his directorial debut with the much buzzed-about sci-fi drama Ex Machina. Garland decided not to re-read the book, instead adapting the material as “like a dream of the book”.

There was a degree of intrigue surrounding Annihilation and it is clearly a film that was intended to be seen on the big screen, so it’s a bit of a shame that while it received a theatrical release in the U.S. and China, it is being streamed on Netflix everywhere else. It seems that Paramount financier David Ellison wanted the film reshot after poor test screening results, deeming it “too intellectual”. Director Garland insisted on keeping the film the way it is and was backed by producer Scott Rudin. Paramount eventually made a deal to let Netflix handle international distribution.

With that background out of the way, it’s easy to see why Annihilation might not win over mass audiences, but the very things that set it apart from typical commercial films also make it interesting. Annihilation is a movie that will mess with your head, and if challenging, cerebral sci-fi is what you’re looking for, you’ll find that and then some here.

In Annihilation, what’s scary is also beautiful. The Shimmer is a world in which lots of things have gone wrong – or has everything gone right, and it’s the world outside that’s out of order? Annihilation delves into some heady themes but has the visual invention to hold our interest as it burrows ever further into the madness.

With echoes of H.P. Lovecraft, the works of John Carpenter and Stanley Kubrick, Annihilation is deliberately opaque and vague, but is tense enough to reel the viewer in. Cinematographer Rob Hardy plays with the light within the Shimmer, rendering everything ethereal but slightly menacing. The effect, when combined with other atmospherics including the music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, creates a beguiling yet disorienting world that is truly alien.

 

Annihilation isn’t all highfalutin ponderousness: there are a healthy number of visceral genre thrills, including sequences when our characters get chased by monsters like an albino alligator with shark teeth. There is one truly stomach-turning moment of gory body horror, but Annihilation gets under one’s skin with psychological trickery rather than overt grossness. Just like the characters, we’re questioning everything we see. Garland masterfully generates a sense of being sure of nothing except the danger.

It’s worth noting that the film’s main cast is all female. Each of the five characters who go on the expedition are distinct enough from each other and while there isn’t a great deal of development for everyone, there’s sufficient information conveyed about each character that we’re invested in them as a group.

Lena is competent and intelligent but haunted, and Portman portrays the character with admirable sensitivity. She’s somewhat detached from the world, as if she’s lost a piece of herself since the disappearance of her husband. Lena is flawed and difficult to pin down. We see Lena fight battles internal and external, calling on her wits and determination to survive an overwhelming, perplexing ordeal.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is severe and guarded as Dr. Ventress, the authority figure who’s hiding something. We’ve seen Tessa Thompson play badass and assured, so it’s interesting to see her play withdrawn and insecure. Gina Rodriguez is a lively presence who also brings a degree of unpredictability to the table. Of the main cast, Tuva Novotny is the blandest, and a scene in which she tells Lena about the background of each team member feels a little on the nose.

For all its trippiness and immersive atmospherics, Annihilation makes several missteps. While the framing device set after the events of the bulk of the film is ostensibly to contextualise the flashbacks, it also means that we know at least some of the outcome of the expedition. There are moments when the film feels like it’s being ambiguous and confusing for the sake of it, but it never feels lazy while doing so.

Annihilation is an intense, thrilling and deeply creepy slice of sci-fi horror that’s sufficiently different from what audiences are used to. Garland continues to show promise as a genre director with an exciting voice, and many spirited discussions about the minutiae of the film and what it all means are bound to ensue. Step into the Shimmer; it’s a wild ride.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Hateful Eight

For F*** Magazine

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

Director : Quentin Tarantino
Cast : Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum
Genre : Western/Thriller
Run Time : 167 mins
Opens : 21 January 2016
Rating : R21

Hang on to them reins, boys and girls, because Quentin Tarantino’s wrangled up his eighth motion picture and is coming at you guns a-blazin’, all shot in glorious 65mm. It is some time after the Civil War in wintry Wyoming and bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) hitches a ride on a stagecoach occupied by fellow bounty hunter John “Hangman” Ruth (Russell) and his captive, Daisy Domergue (Leigh). Ruth is delivering Domergue to the town of Red Rock, and the trio comes across Chris Mannix (Goggins), apparently the new sheriff of Red Rock. The four arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge, which is being looked after by Bob the Mexican (Bichir) in Minnie’s absence. They meet the other lodgers: English hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), ranch hand Joe Gage (Madsen) and former Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Dern). Trapped in the middle of a fierce blizzard, this motley crew aren’t going to sit all quiet-like and wait for the storm to blow over, with mysteries unravelling, tensions mounting and lots of blood being spilled.

            As can be expected with any new Tarantino project, there was a great deal of pomp and circumstance surrounding the development of The Hateful Eight. The script surfaced online in January 2014, inciting Tarantino’s rage and a degree of finger-pointing as to who exactly leaked the screenplay. Tarantino briefly considered scrapping the film entirely and publishing The Hateful Eight as a novel instead. A live reading was staged before the film eventually went into production. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone came on board to score his first Western in 34 years and provide the first original score for a Tarantino film, the soundtracks of which customarily comprise existing songs. Then, the film was released in an old-fashioned roadshow presentation projected in 70 mm format, this version containing an extra 20 minutes of footage compared to the regular theatrical release.

            After all of this build-up, The Hateful Eight emerges as a film that is Tarantino’s through and through, but is not one of the director’s stronger efforts. With all the accolades he has amassed and with the impact his films have made on the pop cultural landscape, it makes sense that Tarantino would be given carte blanche to create the film he wants to. This is a spectacularly self-indulgent piece, and while Tarantino has made self-indulgence work in his favour in previous films, The Hateful Eight will test audiences who aren’t already converts to his style. Near the beginning of the film, Ruth orders Warren to put aside his pistol “molasses-like”, which is exactly the pacing of the movie. The 167-minute-long theatrical cut is already a challenge to endure, let alone the 187-minute roadshow cut. The cast is peppered with actors who have worked with Tarantino before and the director’s penchant for bombastic monologues and excessive, gory violence is in full force here. He has always planted his flag at the intersection of artfulness and vulgarity, and that flag is definitely still standing.

            At its core, this is a mystery, with Tarantino citing the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None as a reference point. It seems like it would work better as a stage play, and Tarantino does indeed have intentions of writing and directing a Broadway adaptation of the film. There are twists, turns and reveals, but this is a more straight-forward story than it is presented as, with the feeling of a tense, intimate drama being bloated to epic proportions, stuffed with over-the-top posturing and drenched in mostly unnecessary blood. Our characters arrive at a locale, are stuck there and a whodunit unfolds. The sometimes ridiculous heights that this reaches detract from the overall impact and suspense.

There are ingeniously staged moments of ratcheting tension that are immediately undercut by fountains of arterial splatter. One can imagine Tarantino rubbing his hands with glee, setting special effects makeup artists Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger loose on set, armed with assorted viscera. When Tarantino was paying homage to genres like the gangster movie, Blaxploitation or the martial arts film in the past, bloody violence makes more sense than it does in association with westerns, even given revisionist works by the likes of Sam Peckinpah. The violence crosses past the point of being shocking into being pointlessly numbing.

            Watching the cast at play is fun and thankfully, there’s a great deal of that going on here. This is an ensemble piece, but Tarantino’s oft-collaborator Jackson takes the lead as Major Marquis Warren. We initially lean into rooting for Warren because, as the lone black character for the bulk of the film, Warren is the target of strong racial slurs, but his own volatility and detestable actions soon come to light, making him at once fascinating and repulsive. Russell’s more understated approach is the ideal counterpoint to Jackson’s style, and for the most part, it’s clear this is a cast who knows full well what they’re doing.

Leigh is remarkably believable as the scuzzy Domergue, bad teeth, black eye, stringy hair and all, perhaps the most authentic of the bunch in mannerisms and appearance. Jennifer Lawrence was reported under consideration to play Domergue. Dern has a quietly commanding presence and carries one of the film’s most powerful moments, a conversation between Warren and Smithers about the fate of Smithers’ son. Goggins is entertaining though often bothering on annoying as he enthusiastically bounces about the set. Madsen puts in the least effort, though perhaps there’s a charm in that stemming from the Reservoir Dogs connection. In addition to Mr. Blonde, Mr. Orange, a.k.a. Tim Roth, is also present.

            Tatum’s appearance, however brief, completely pulled this reviewer out of the film. The actor has stumbled awkwardly through many a dramatic role and the ruthless badass Tatum plays in The Hateful Eight doesn’t capitalise on any of his comedic strengths. Stunt performer and actress Zoë Bell, a Tarantino mainstay, also has a minor supporting role. Bell’s New Zealand accent is acknowledged, but that doesn’t make it any less out of place in the setting.

            For fans of Tarantino’s technique and style and those who have enjoyed dissecting his back-catalogue and devising theories about how the events of all his films are connected, The Hateful Eight will be a largely fulfilling experience. However, if the wanton violence and odes to specific pop culture ephemera in his previous movies were alienating, The Hateful Eight is all the more so. It is generally true that a director making a film for himself is better than a hired gun just cashing a check, but The Hateful Eight feels like it was made primarily for Tarantino’s own amusement, and that if the general audience happens to like it, it’s mostly because they’ve been conditioned by the director’s own oeuvre.



Summary: The Hateful Eight is packed with its director’s signature flair, but it often feels saturated and overwhelmingly self-indulgent, a cloud of “you’re supposed to like this because it’s Tarantino” hanging over it.

RATING: 2.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong