New Sci-Fi Horror film from “Ex-Machina” director surpasses expectations

By Erik Jimenez

Back in spring of 2015, “28 Days Later” and “Dredd” writer Alex Garland surprised the world with his directorial debut “Ex-Machina.”

While it wasn’t a big hit at the box office, the low-budget film generated enough success and received critical acclaim nabbing an Academy Award and Nomination for Visual Effects and Original Screenplay, respectively.

Running on that success, it’s disappointing to see his follow-up film “Annihilation” arrive in theaters with little to no fanfare. But in terms of expectations, it thankfully surpasses them.

If “Annihilation” was released later in the year, it would easily be in talks for Best Picture at the Academy Awards next year. It is that good.

The film is based on the book of the same name by Jeff Vandermeer. Loosely, the book is a part of a trilogy, but Garland has stated he has not read the other two books nor is he interested in adapting them.

The film follows Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist and former soldier who joins a group of military scientists who enter “The Shimmer,” a mysterious quarantined zone that is full of mutating landscapes and creatures in Northwest Florida.

She joins them to discover what happened to her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) after he has gone into a coma after seemingly disappearing from the world for a year. His disappearance and come was a result of joining an expedition into “The Shimmer” by a secret government organization known as Southern Reach.

“The Shimmer” was created three years earlier when an alien object struck a lighthouse in a national park, and has been growing ever since. Len joins a team composed of: Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist and the leader of the expedition, paramedic Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson) and anthropologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).

The story itself feels like a stereotypical sci-fi horror tale through “The Shimmer” and changes into something refreshing and new yet somewhat recognizable like many of the plant and animal life in the film.

For example, the first half hour of the film feels like “Predator” or “Alien” as it sets up the team members and their various personalities But unlike those two, the film opts for an all-female team.

Unlike other attempts, this all-female cast portrays its characters in typically male positions that we have seen fail horribly in say, the 2016 “Ghostbusters” remake. “Annihilation” succeeds because the actresses aren’t playing their roles as a wife, mother, daughter, etc.

The characters may carry some of those titles, but the titles are not their defining traits, as would a male character. They are all people first. They’re all rather complex characters, almost like more feminine versions of Sarah Connor from the “Terminator” series or Ripley from “Aliens”.

And as a result, Lena, Ventress, Thorenson, Radek and Sheppard are some of the best depictions of women I have seen on film. The acting is also top notch across the board.  

Having the screenplay written by a man shows that anyone is capable of writing respective roles for any character.

Portman, Leigh and the others give these characters and their dialogue the gravitas they need. The only weak link in the film is Oscar Isaac (who also starred in Garland’s “Ex-Machina”) but he does not get enough screen time and when he does, he seems to switch in and out of a faulty Southern accent.

Another great twist from this typical sci-fi film is the scene when the Earth begins to change into something alien, and looks and feels like the doors to hell are opening up.

But in “Annihilation,” Garland makes the transformed parts of the Earth delicate and comfortable, almost dream-like in a way.

Thanks to Garland, the excellent work of cinematographer Rob Hardy and the entire production design team, he has transformed the swamps, beaches and forests of the northern part of our state into something beautiful, but also something clearly dangerous.

You never truly let your guard down throughout the film while you are in “The Shimmer.” It is downright awards worthy. And while there are no major twists at the end of the film, the climax of the film itself is and incredibly visually stunning scenes.

What makes Garland’s two films so far stand out from other mainstream affair is that he is more interested in impressing the audience intellectually than entertaining them with cheap thrills.

Being produced by Paramount and having a higher budget than “Ex-Machina,” the studio asked Garland to change the ending, which he and Producer Scott Rudin fought hard to not do. The two successfully made a deal with Paramount by allowing the studio to release the film internationally on Netflix to keep advertising costs down.

I’m glad to say that battle payed off.

Photo retrieved by Flickr.

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