‘Annihilation’ is a Unique Sci-Fi Cinematic Experience

Annihilation movie poster

I have to give Paramount Pictures credit for taking risks in the past year or so on movies which defy what is considered these days to be mainstream entertainment. Last year, they released Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” a film which could in no way be mistaken for a comic book movie. Despite it earning a rare Cinemascore grade of an F, Paramount stood behind Aronofsky and his film defiantly, saying they were proud of the work he did. Keep in mind, the studio made this clear even after “mother!” suffered a weak opening at the box office, especially when compared to other movies starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Now in 2018, Paramount has released “Annihilation,” a science-fiction horror film which not only defies what many expect from Hollywood at the moment, but also proves impossibly hard to fit into any specific genre. This has led many to accuse Paramount of not giving the movie the proper promotion it deserved, but we will address this issue at another time. Whatever expectations you have for this cinematic experience, it would be best to leave them at the door as “Annihilation” deals with themes and situations other filmmakers have explored in the past, but this time they are handled in a way which feels truly fresh and not the least bit routine.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist and former U.S. Army soldier who, as the movie starts, is in a depressed state as her husband, Army soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for a year, and many presume he has been killed in action. But suddenly, Kane reappears to Lena’s delight, but he resembles one of the pod people from Phillip Kaufman’s remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as he seems devoid of any emotion and cannot remember where he was. Before Lena can get a satisfactory answer regarding his whereabouts, Kane becomes very sick and is transported via ambulance to the hospital. As you can expect, military officials stop the ambulance, and it becomes clear Lena and Kane have stumbled across something those in power would prefer to keep under a heavy veil of secrecy.

“Annihilation” puts us right into Lena’s shoes as she desperately tries to understand the situation she has been thrust into. Finding herself at the United States’ government facility known as Area X, a name which implies a location always closed off to the general public, Lena is greeted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who finally gives her some answers and introduces her to an area known as “the shimmer.” We see a meteor hit a lighthouse, and from there an electromagnetic field has developed and continues to spread at a rate to where it will eventually absorb everything in its path. Soldiers have been sent into “the shimmer” to better understand this phenomenon, but Kane is the only one who has come back from it alive.

Dr. Ventress ends up recruiting Lena and two other women to join her on the latest mission to enter “the shimmer,” a mission they have every reason to believe is a suicidal one. This is where “Annihilation” becomes particularly unique as these characters are not trying to be heroic but are instead dealing with their own self-destructive tendencies. Indeed, self-destruction is a big theme as these four women are revealed to be individuals deeply wounded by life in one way or another to where they feel as though there’s nothing much left to care about or live for. But as they get deeper into “the shimmer,” their survival instincts become awakened almost immediately.

“Annihilation” was written for the screen and directed by Alex Garland who started out as a novelist with his book “The Beach” which was made into a movie by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Since then, he has graduated to writing screenplays for “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd.” In 2015, he made his directorial debut with “Ex Machina,” a brilliant science fiction thriller which dealt with the subject of artificial intelligence in a way which felt familiar and yet very fresh. Even if the story reminded me of “Frankenstein” in a way, the approach Garland took with the material and the characters felt invigorating and wonderfully unique.

Garland has brought this same kind of energy and enthusiasm to “Annihilation” as it follows a group of people caught in a situation much like the one in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” to where they are dealing with an antagonist who is not quite visible, and this leads them to become increasingly paranoid about one another. Garland does an excellent job of keeping the audience off-balance as he takes us through the story in a non-linear fashion. When Lena awakes in a tent inside “the shimmer,” she admits she has no idea how she got there or of what she experienced in the past few hours. Indeed, we end up feeling as lost as her as we are desperate to better understand the situation everyone has been sucked into, and Garland holds our attention throughout as a result.

Throughout, Garland gives us much to think about such as the differences between suicide and self-destruction as well as the importance and inherent danger of discovery. While watching “Annihilation,” I was reminded of a scene in “Jurassic Park” between John Hammond and Ian Malcolm. Hammond doesn’t understand why anyone would stand in the way of discovery, but Malcolm leaves him with this to chew on:

“What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”

But while Garland has crafted “Annihilation” as the thinking person’s sci-fi movie, it is not at all lacking in the thrill department. Certain scenes have a visceral feel to where I jumped out of my seat for the first time in ages. On a visual level, it has a look which is as beautiful as it is haunting, and I am having a hard time comparing it to other movies I have seen recently. On top of this, “Annihilation” features a very unique sonic landscape courtesy of composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, both of whom combine an earthly sound with an electronic one as they work to separate the real world these characters have left behind and the alien realm they have dared themselves to enter.

Natalie Portman has a tricky role to play here. As Lena, she has to be vulnerable but also exhibit a reserve of strength deeply embedded in a character who has served her time in the military. That Portman manages to pull this off is not the least bit surprising, and she gives us a fully formed character whose experience and pain aid her in the movie’s spellbinding climax. Many still can’t shake the squeaky-clean image they have of Portman, but she has been around long enough to remind audiences of the amazing depth and range she has as an actress.

It’s great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh here as well, let alone in any movie she appears in. As Dr. Ventress, she creates a truly enigmatic character who keeps her emotion in check to where you constantly wonder what is going on in her head. Clearly, this doctor has more interests than in just exploring “the shimmer,” and Leigh keeps you guessing what they are all the way to the end.

I also have to give credit to Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny for creating such memorable characters out of those which, in any other movie, could have been of the easily disposable variety. Some characters exist solely to further the actions of the lead protagonist or serve as mere fodder for an ever so lethal antagonist, but these actresses make theirs stand out in a way they would not have otherwise, and their final onscreen moments are hard to shake once you have witnessed them.

And when it comes to Oscar Isaac, you can always count on him to give an infinitely charismatic performance even in a role where the character looks to have been drained of all emotion. Telling you more about his character of Kane would be detrimental to your viewing experience, but once you watch him here, you will agree he has created a fascinating portrait of a man who once knew his place in the world, but who now is forever lost in it.

It has now been a few days since I have watched “Annihilation,” and I still find myself thinking about the movie quite intensely. Even if its pace lags a little more than it should, the questions it left me with remain endlessly fascinating. When we see Lena reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” is that a hint of some kind? What led Garland to include the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Hopelessly Hoping” here? And more importantly, is the movie’s ending a hopeful one, or is it meant to be relentlessly bleak? Garland is not out to give us easy answers, but my hope is you will be open to the unusual experience this movie has to offer. Cinemascore may have given it an average grade of a C, but please remember this is the same research group which gave “America: Imagine the World Without Her” an A+.

Trust me, check this one out, and be sure to come into it with an open mind.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘mother!’ Provides Audiences with a Vicious Roller Coaster Ride into Madness

mother! movie poster

After watching Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, a special behind the scenes featurette was shown where the filmmaker explained how he wanted to make a movie which would generate different reactions from its audience to where various interpretations could be formed over what they witnessed. Aronofsky has succeeded in doing exactly that as “mother!” does not have him spelling anything out for anyone, perhaps not even for the cast either. Maybe he does have an explanation for all the craziness which ensues in this, one of the freakiest psychological thrillers in some time, but he’s not about to let on what it is, and I am perfectly fine with that as to explain anything about the plot would dilute its power instantly.

The experience of seeing “mother!” was a lot like watching Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” as both movies feature a married couple who are nameless and staying in a secluded country home in the woods. Like “Antichrist,” “mother!” has polarized critics and audiences as many are desperate to discover what its director was attempting to accomplish here. The best advice I can give you is to approach Aronofsky’s film by leaving any and expectations you have for it at the door. It has been advertised as an homage to “Rosemary’s Baby,” but the only thing it has in common with Polanski’s classic is it’s also not a movie for new or expectant parents.

We meet Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) on a beautiful and sunny morning as she wakes up in the home she shares with Him (Javier Bardem), a well-regarded poet who is currently suffering from a frustrating bout of writer’s block. The two of them lead a peaceful existence in a home which has been lovingly restored after suffering much damage, but this existence is soon interrupted by an unexpected visitor (played by Ed Harris), an orthopedic surgeon who Him welcomes into their home even though Mother is perturbed that he would welcome a complete stranger in ever so easily.

Things become even more complicated when the unexpected visitor’s wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) comes by and becomes infatuated with knowing more about Mother and why she and her husband have no children of their own. Granted, this makes Lawrence’s character’s name of Mother hypocritical as she is not a mother at the movie’s start, but many surprises are in store for the characters and the audience as “mother!” takes a number of twists and turns you cannot see coming.

Revealing more about what happens would be detrimental as “mother!” is best viewed with little knowledge about it. Indeed, promoting this movie must have been a nightmare for Paramount Pictures as you can only say so much about it before you spoil everything. Then again, can you spoil this movie for others? Aronofsky has made something here which cannot be easily explained, but while this will baffle and infuriate many who sit through, it should enthrall those who are in the mood for something cinematically adventurous and a movie which forces you to think about what you just saw.

What I can tell you is things reach a frenzied fever pitch as “mother!” barrels towards a climax which comes close to equaling the frenzy of Ellen Burstyn being terrorized by her refrigerator in “Requiem for a Dream.” Aronofsky has said he applied “dream-logic” to “mother!,” and it certainly helps to know this going in as events keeping going by at a rapid pace to where you can’t help but feel like you are in a nightmare or a dream you are desperate to control, but can’t. It’s like being a car when the brakes have failed you, and the emergency brake ultimately doesn’t work either. You just keep getting thrust into a hellish realm as Lawrence and Bardem become trapped in their once peaceful home as the woods it is located in offers no escape. In fact, it all reminded me of what Charlotte Gainsbourg said in “Antichrist” at one point, “Nature is Satan’s church.” Well, Satan looks to be having even more fun here.

There are said to be a lot of biblical allegories to be discovered here, but the only one I could see was the reference to Cain and Abel as two brothers fight one another bitterly over an inheritance which benefits one more than the other. I am already very eager to see “mother!” as seeing it once is not enough to uncover all which Aronofsky wants us to discover. Now that I have experience this motion picture on an emotionally visceral level, I want to experience in a different way even though Aronofsky has warned us not to analyze “mother!” too deeply.

Jennifer Lawrence remains as luminous an actress as ever, and she looks to be put through the emotional wringer here as her character descends into a realm of inescapable madness. It turns out she even got so into character on set to where she was constantly hyperventilating and even cracked a rib, so there’s no doubt about dedication to playing a role. At this point, I am convinced Lawrence can play any role given to her, and she has this ageless quality to her appearance which matches her up perfectly with actors who are several years older.

Lawrence also shares a number of almost gleefully unsettling scenes opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, an actress we don’t see near enough of these days. As these two circle each other like cats ready to hiss at one another while guarding their precious territory, we are reminded of how brilliant Pfeiffer can be when given material which piques her interest.

As for Javier Bardem and Ed Harris, these are two actors you can never ever go wrong with, and they infuse “mother!” with a passion for acting they have never lost sight of since the start of their careers. Bardem, in particular, gives his character a loving presence as well as an ominous one. The latter is especially the case in a scene where he stares down Lawrence, and it’s a stare which lasts for what feels like an eternity and brings back memories of his Oscar-winning role as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” I kept waiting for him to explode as Bardem sits like a wild animal waiting to strike, and I was desperate for Lawrence not to let her guard down while in front of him.

Aronofsky continues to employ many of his regular colleagues to great effect like cinematographer Matthew Libatique, but what’s surprising is this movie’s lack of a music score. Instead of employing his longtime composer Clint Mansell, Aronofsky instead hired Johann Johannsson to come up with ominous musical themes. However, upon viewing an edit of “mother!,” they both agreed this movie didn’t need a score. It says a lot about “mother!” that it needs no music score to aid in the movie’s mission to generate almost unbearable tension. Few other filmmakers could get away with such a feat, but the intense sound design which, when viewed in the right theater, surrounds you to where you feel every bit as trapped as Lawrence is. As her predicament becomes more and more of a sonic assault, we feel her character’s agitation all too much.

In retrospect, I was tickled to death at the reactions the audience I saw “mother!” had. Several people laughed either out of derision or just plain nervousness as things went from a state of peacefulness to complete Armageddon, and others complained how this scene or another contained the only elements which made the least amount of sense to them. As I walked out of the theater, others said they couldn’t understand why people were laughing at certain moments. Many of my movie friends have said this movie is likely to end up on the lists of both the best and the worst films of 2017, and I couldn’t agree more. You will either love this motion picture, or you will hate it with a passion.

As for myself, I loved the visceral roller coaster ride “mother!” took me on. I never caught myself laughing much at what went on as I was completely gripped in Aronofsky’s vise as he continued to tighten the grip he had on me, and I was thrilled at the levels of “Requiem for a Dream” intensity he was able to generate with this one. Many will say he is simply out to torture his audience, but why can’t we have a torturous cinematic experience every once in a while, or at least one which is torturous in a good way? I show no hesitation in calling “mother!” one of the best movies I have seen so far in 2017 as it provided me with something incredibly unique in a time where the cinematic landscape is overfilled with superheroes.

Yes, the market research firm CinemaScore has given “mother!” an average grade of an F, a rare grade for movie to get from them. Then again, Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris,” William Friedkin’s “Bug” and Richard Kelly’s “The Box” also received the same grade, and those movies are much better than their reputations suggest. And keep in mind, this is the same firm which gave an A+ to Dinesh D’Souza’s infinitely patriotic but poorly made, not to mention boring, documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” so there’s no accounting for taste.

Seriously, I haven’t had this much fun taking in an audience’s reaction to a motion picture since “The Human Centipede 2.” Of course, “mother!” is much, much better than that one. When the exclamation mark appears a couple of seconds after the title does and then sticks around once the title disappears, you should know you are in for something completely different.

* * * * out of * * * *