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ANNIHILATION by Ex Machina's Alex Garland (Read 1312 times)
Feb 27th, 2018 at 3:21pm

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Writer Alex Garland has become one the most accomplished in the sci-fi/horror field over the past several years with 28 DAYS LATER, NEVER LET ME GO, SUNSHINE etc., culminating with his highly successful Writer-Director debut, EX MACHINA. Here, Garland adapts Jeff VanderMeer's first book in a trilogy. Publicly, Garland has admitted that he read the book (and only the first) once and then set it aside. His adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel for NEVER LET ME GO was beautifully done, so there was a similar hope here.

Unfortunately, ANNIHILATION comes off as a distinct disappointment. Garland has acknowledged a debt to Russian Director Andrei Tarkovsky's STALKER (which was re-released last year to major acclaim). It also bears major resemblances to Tarkovsky's SOLARIS. But, whereas Tarkovsky took an exclusively intellectual approach to the material, Garland attempts to synthesize that method with a more visceral one (and there are a couple of very graphic examples).

The outline of the story is intriguing - a force of some kind has created a zone where humans enter - but, seemingly, never return. No one that is, until a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac) who mysteriously appears at the home of his wife Lena (Natalie Portman) who has presumed him dead. Circumstances lead Kane and Lena back to the force's front, called The Shimmer (for it's translucent waterfall-like appearance). Lena joins a party with four other women into the newest expedition into The Shimmer: Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tess Thompson). All have particular talents to bring to the mission, but, all are also considered emotionally 'damaged' in some way going in.

Without getting into spoilers, suffice it to say that within The Shimmer they find an assortment of mutations - both plant and animal - and that these mutants pose great physical and psychological danger to the quintet of women. Some of the science is fascinating. Unfortunately, the characterizations of the women are dreary and uninteresting. Whenever a new turn in the mystery is encountered, it is almost invariably met with dull interactions among the women, not to mention their often foolish behavior. More than once, they encounter evidence of previous expeditions, only to turn away before exploring all of it - so much for all that scientific and military training!

As noted, Garland's adaptation not only owes a debt to Tarkovsky, but, sci-fi fans will also see parallels to the Alien series, THE THING, 2001, PHASE IV, ARRIVAL and others. But, here, the mix between the purely intellectual aspects and the more physical ones never mesh. It's also curiously over-written in a manner that most experienced screenwriters don't fall in to. The result is that ANNIHILATION ends up being a compromise on both ends. No wonder test audiences and the movie's Producers themselves wanted changes (the studio was so hesitant to give it a major theatrical release that it was sold to Netflix overseas, and barely escaped that fate stateside).

ANNIHILATION is well-produced and solidly acted. The SFX are rendered well. The musical score (Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury) is a curious, but largely effect contrast between traditional orchestral and acoustic instrumentation. As opposed to most sci-fi movies today, it is a movie about ideas - and, it has some good ones. Too bad the execution doesn't quite match the ambition.
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