‘Ex Machina’ director makes comeback with ‘Annihilation’

Alex Garland, director of Ex Machina, re-enters our imaginations with his newest film, “Annihilation.” While it’s a stellar addition to the sci-fi genre, the film does have a few loose ends./ Courtesy of Wikipedia

If you asked the conceited, arrogant and ignorant individual that was my high school self what my favorite movie was, I would have scoffed at you. I would have followed the scoff with a disdainful look and then I would have spat out my answer: “Ex Machina.” That movie came out my senior year, and something about it just did it for me. I loved, and still love, the basic color palette, the geometrically shot compositions and the slow sci-fi story.

But that was then, and this is now. I still like “Ex Machina” quite a bit, but I think that the reasons why I like it have changed. Earlier, the movie used to make me feel smart, and I looked at it from a snobbish angle (Now I’m an English major, so I only look down upon books). I was willing to look past some of the clunkier parts of “Ex Machina” because of how the movie made me feel, not necessarily because of the movie itself. But there still is a lot to love about it, and this duality of clunk and brilliance is also on display in director Alex Garland’s new movie “Annihilation.”

“Annihilation” is a somewhat loose adaptation of an excellent book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. The plot of both the film and the book centers around a mysterious field known as “the shimmer” begins to grow across an area of the U.S. after a meteor strikes the planet. A shady scientific agency sends teams of people beyond the technology-rejecting shimmer to discover and stop the alien growth.

And here is where the movie’s greatest strength resides: Garland and company did a stellar job at depicting the world inside Area X. With the descriptions prodding responses from the reader’s imagination, Garland presents a fantastic display of a realized conceptualization.

In interviews, Garland said that he really tried to focus on developing a psychedelic quality to the alien area of the film, and he positively nails it. This isn’t the zany rainbows and pop-up nonsense of other half-baked “psychedelic” aesthetics, but rather it is a soft layer of distortion that permeates the entire experience of the film. It pulses throughout the movie and produces some of the most intense and nightmarish images I have seen on the big screen in quite some time.

As an aesthetic endeavor, “Annihilation” excels. However, as an artistic statement, “Annihilation” is only competent. Garland embodies the movie’s themes quite well, but there is a sense of stumbling that holds the film back. It isn’t necessarily that something is handled poorly, but that other, secondary narratives within the film are much more effective than the primary narrative. I am talking about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s and Tessa Thompson’s character arcs.

The title “Annihilation” is more than just an ominous portent that looms over the movie. There are several resonances with the word throughout. Two such resonances occur in relation to Leigh’s character Ventress and Thompson’s character Josie. I don’t want to spoil anything, but easily the two most moving moments of the movie come from these characters.

As a metaphorical piece of fruit, “Annihilation” has some noticeable bruises. The deepest, mushiest bruise has to be this movie’s undeniable clumsiness. Garland, who wrote the screenplay, is a great writer, but the script for “Annihilation” shows most blatantly some of his faults. Take, for instance, the character Josie whom I was just praising so highly.

I like what this character represents thematically for the film and I think that Thompson’s performance is truly a standout among the cast. But some of the routes the screenplay takes to portray Josie are fairly dubious. The other clunky gear in this engine is Natalie Portman. I don’t think she performed poorly per se, but all of the movie’s longest and most tortuous scenes are unfortunately hers. Again, a lot of these come from the script: Portman’s character is introduced as a biologist, and Garland really wants you to know that, so Portman’s character becomes a walking biology textbook for a good part of the exposition. A quick note on the claims of whitewashing leveled against this film by audiences: Natalie Portman’s character in the book is Asian, but this isn’t revealed until the second book, which wasn’t released until after Garland had already written and casted his script.

There’s also a sex scene that keeps reappearing. That scene was fine the first time it came on, but the same exact scene reappears approximately five more times throughout the movie. But then, later in the movie, we see what happens after the sex in a scene that is assuredly the worst instance of pillow talk I have ever seen in a film. The script makes it clear that these two people aren’t very into each other, so bad pillow talk makes sense. But dialogues were so ham-fisted and bluntly delivered that I was left cringing for all the wrong reasons.

And then there was the climax of the movie. I really loved “Annihilation,” but I can’t get around this ending. Like the other faults of this movie, it wasn’t a poor plot point, it was just clumsy. While the ending was overall effective, we have to go through a lot of out-of-place muck to get there first. This is a shame when compared with the book, which was as lean as a figure skater.

All this being said, it would be hard to disown this movie. It’s an enjoyable watch that will ultimately leave you satisfied, but it just doesn’t pull it off without a hitch. It’s something high school me, and the me right now, are both okay with.

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