Alex Garland has been one of Hollywood’s most stable sci-fi screenwriters for some time. In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a sly and invigorating potboiler that made you think. It helped make Alicia Vikander a star and Garland himself was nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay. The movie even won an Oscar for best visual effects, beating out some pretty pricey competition. With one movie, Garland displayed a natural knack for directing. His follow-up, Annihilation, is based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer and has already run into some trouble. After poor test screenings, the producer tried to force changes but these were refused. In a face-saving outreach, Annihilation will only be playing theatrically in North America and will debut on Netlfix weeks later for the rest of the world. The suits are not confidant in the larger public clicking with Annihilation, and they might be right. This isn’t going to be one of those films that people leave declaring their love over in effusive terms, despite what the critical praise may lead you to believe. This is a movie that you leave saying, “Huh.” It’s so powerfully inscrutable to the point that most other conventional forms of cinematic entertainment and narrative are smothered. And yet, it’s that inscrutability that might be the movie’s biggest point and might be its biggest asset.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year ever since he ventured into a strange environmental disaster zone. Then he reappears with a mysterious illness and little memory of the events. Lena joins an all-female crew of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) to find out some answers by exploring The Shimmer, the site where an alien meteorite collided with coastal land and has been changing local life forms at an alarming pace.
Like I said, this movie is a conundrum, not just in a “What did I just watch?” sort of analysis but also in a, “Did I actually like that movie?” personal introspection. There isn’t really a mystery here to unpack as there is an enigmatic experience to explain. I’m doing something I don’t normally like to do, which is immediately type my review shortly after seeing a movie. I generally like to marinate on my feelings after experiencing a movie; however, with this one I felt compelled to put furious fingers to the keyboard, trying to explore my myriad conflicted feelings and find my way out the other side, or at least articulate that journey. I’ll try and steer away from any major spoilers though I worry that even discussing some of my confounding responses will require some thematic and plot context, so beware readers who wish to go into this experience completely pure.
Annihilation is an existential horror movie about biology’s indifference to mankind; at least that’s my best thematic interpretation. In the beginning, Lena is explaining the history of cellular life, the simple splitting of cells that begat all life on the planet. There was no larger forethought, no agenda, and no malice, only the enacting of DNA programming. Ultimately, I think the alien mutations are running on a similar principle. This isn’t an invasion by any traditional definition. This isn’t anything nefarious. This isn’t even anything as clearly identifiable as a virus spreading its illness. This is simply life stirring in a few new recipes. There’s a general level of indifference to the overall setting, which makes the environmental wonders and horrors more dispiriting. For those who demand clear answers from their storytelling, they will be left sorely disappointed. Annihilation doesn’t have any real answers for why these things are happening. They just are occurring, much like the beginning steps of cellular life that found new modes of survival on Earth billions of years prior. It’s just another stage in the development of life. The fact that humanity can be so easily cast aside, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. There’s a mounting sense of existential dread about man’s inevitable demise. One character dubs their mission suicidal and is corrected by another. “People confuse suicide with self-destruction,” she says. “Very few people are suicidal, but all of us are self-destructive.” The plotline confirms this as characters fall victim to hubris and curiosity. However, one may argue there is biological in destruction and reconstitution.
Be warned, dear reader, this is a rather slow movie with a lot of space for breathing, the kind of thing meant to establish a particular atmospheric mood. If you connect with the material, it works, obviously. The problem with Annihilation is that because it’s so inscrutable, because it keeps you at a distance on purpose, that it allows more opportunities to check out. We’re anticipating weirdness and a general breakdown in the group of scientists, and Garland seems to understand this, which may be why he gradually delivers his genre scares. There is an amazing sequence in the middle that is the fuel of nightmares, made all the more searing and scaring by a horrifying sound design that’s even worse when you connect it with the visual source. I was almost compelled to look away and spare my memory this ghastly sight. There are other unsettling moments and the overall feel of the film is definitely one of discomfort and dread, but it’s this scene I’ll always remember and that also solidified the nasty surprises from Mother Nature. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The eventual ending should be easy enough to predict thanks to Garland’s flash-forwards tipping your expectations, that is, if you can actually understand the ending. I still cannot say for certain what happened and why or whether I cared about a why. If, as stated above, the point of the movie is man’s inability to find a recognizable motive in the replication of life by biological factors, then that lends itself to a generally unsatisfying end.
One interesting idea that I regret gets short shrift is just the fact that this is an all-female group of scientists venturing where literally only men have gone before. I’m not celebrating this as some sort of nod at feminism but because it offered an interesting storytelling avenue. All the previous groups were all men and they either were killed by the new environmental dangers or went crazy and killed each other. Minor spoilers, but the women fall under the same sway, destined to the same fate, and it feels like a shame. If you’re going to make a point of questioning whether the deterioration of order and sanity is related to an all-masculine entanglement of thinkers, then don’t just have the women repeat the same decline. Or maybe that’s the point? I don’t know.
Portman (Jackie) does an convincing job of alternating looking confused and spooked, mimicking most of the audience reaction. Her character isn’t asking to be found likeable, only capable, though the first time we get a little taste of her as a person is far too late into the movie. Her marriage might not have been built on the strongest foundation, which again leads to the potential thematic deliberation over self-destruction and rebirth. Leigh (The Hateful Eight) is a bit too flatly monotone for my liking. It feels like she’s sleepwalking through the film, like maybe she was on Ambien and can’t remember even performing in this movie. Tessa Thompson is underwhelming especially with knowing how fully captivating she can be onscreen (see: Thor: Ragnarok). The other notable actress is Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) who put on some muscle and swagger and has a terrific breakdown sequence that showcases some unnerving desperation.
I still cannot even say if I liked Annihilation. There are aspects I can definitely admire, like the commitment of its actors, the emphasis on a more scientific approach to an outbreak/invasion thriller, and Garland’s general sense of place. I still think the majority of audiences are going to leave shrugging. Annihilation is more akin to an Under the Skin or Solaris than a monster hunt. It’s quiet, philosophical, and also often boring. It has its thrilling points, its moments of mystery and intrigue, but it also feels like a slow windup to the eventually disappointing reveal that won’t be enough to justify the lethargic pacing. In the end, this is a difficult movie, but not in a way that requires a thorough decoding like mother! or even in a way that requires repeat viewings to play out the twists. Annihilation is difficult by design, keeping its audience from fully engaging, and then offering little in the way of answers or resolution. And I still don’t know if I like that. Dear reader, this is a confounding movie but it might not be the good kind of confounding.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Jackie (Natalie Portman) is still reeling from the loss of her husband, President Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). In the weeks that followed the assassination in 1963, her life was a whirlwind of change. She was leaving the White House while another administration took control of her husband’s office and agenda. She was leaving a life of glamour and privilege and it all came to a halt. Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) is worried about the Kennedy policies getting lost as well as his own potential presidential prospects. Lyndon Johnson (John Carrol Lynch) is worried about asserting his own control. While trying to work through her grief, Jackie must protect her husband’s legacy among all the well-wishers, political vultures, and craven opportunists.
We’re left with an immersive, impressionistic look at America’s most famous first lady since it’s hard to distinguish the layers of performance from the woman herself. She was used to adopting the façade of what the public expected of her, how her husband’s friends looks at her with desire and dismissiveness, and the differences between her private life and her public persona. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the interior space of a famous woman that so many people think they know well because of her glamour and television appearances, but do they really? Her identity is in free fall. She gave up everything for this man and now he is gone and her cherished position is gone. It’s said each first lady leaves her stamp on the office, and now Ladybird Johnson is already itching to undo that stamp, erasing Jackie’s presence and supplanting it. Will these last few days define her and will they define her husband? While dealing with raw grief, Jackie also takes the position of being the first to protect her husband’s legacy. While planning the particulars of the funeral march and exact burial site, she’s really framing his place in the greater annuls of history, tragically cut short and questionably memorable. His life has been taken from her and now the only thing she can do is protect his place in history. The funeral details and conflicts they consign the new Johnson administration to are interesting, as is Jackie’s simmering disdain for the Johnsons, but it’s more than just placation; Jackie has an underrated knack for theatrical optics. The country is in mourning, just like its (former) first lady, and she offers a spectacle as an outlet. Some term it vanity and even Jackie admits that many aspects were for her, for her grief, for her rage at the world and her doubters, for her wounded soul searching for meaning. She wanted the American public to see her in mourning but she wanted just as much to see them in mourning too.
Eschewing the standard cradle-to-grave biopic, as well the noveau approach of using one clarifying moment to better examine and sum up the person (see: Selma, Steve Jobs), Noah Oppenheim’s script is a triptych, a hypnotic exploration that zips along non-linear but thematically-tethered memories. It’s a more interesting approach because we’re not locked into a linear progression of plot events, though the immediate aftermath and her interview with the Newsweek reporter (Billy Crudup) serve as the directional compass. It also provides a clever conceit for meta-textual levels. We have scenes that lay as direct conflict with the public Jackie and the private Jackie, and we have scenes that lay into the different levels of performance, from her show model tour of the White House furnishings and fixings to putting on the brave face to speak to her children. Director Pablo Larraine (No, Neruda) shoots the movie in a style reminiscent of its 1960s time period, with a film stock that blends the difference between documentary and recreation, further adding another stylistic level to the proceedings. The various threads of connectivity are so much more interesting to dissect with this storytelling approach and it makes the movie a much deeper and more contemplative experience to unpack.
There’s a scene in the middle of Jackie that stood out to me. During a night of drinking, Jackie puts on the record for the Broadway production of Camelot and wanders the large empty spaces of the people’s house. For my younger readers, the Kennedy administration was dubbed by many as “Camelot,” first coined by Jackie, out of a sense of its idealism, youth, and inspirational promise to change the world into a nobler place. It’s practically a mythical time and the real people get lost amidst the romantic spectacle. Nowadays, our presidents can often be the same mythical figures as the kings of old, figureheads whose humanity and details we iron out and soften as we eulogize and entomb them. The music echoes through the different chambers but there’s no one to hear it, no one to enjoy it, the vast emptiness communicating much of Jackie’s anguish. “There will be great presidents again but there will never be another Camelot,” she says. That moment is left as a passing memory, a picture of nostalgia that will only have its realism dampen in time as it becomes enshrined in American myth making. Amidst all her privilege and esteem, there is an existential sense of loss for Jackie and the nation as a whole into the turbulent 60s.
The other rich aspect is that we are watching a woman process her grief in real-time and it can often put a lump in your throat. I challenge anyone not to feel an outpouring of empathy when Jackie has to explain to her two very young children why daddy isn’t coming back from Dallas, having to explain something horrendous to those so innocent. In some scenes it feels like Jackie is numb to the world around her, focused on the little things as an escape from her horrible reality and its trauma. We do get a recreation of that fateful day in Dallas twice. The first is the immediate aftermath with Jackie bloodied and protected by the Secret Service, keeping her at a distance from us too in the audience. The next is a closer view inside the car as we’re with Jackie when the awful event happens, and the sudden shock of gore is still a disturbing gut-punch no matter how much you anticipate the moment. We watch her crazed instincts trying to collect the pieces of her beautiful and broken husband, stressing she was trying to keep everything together, figuratively and literally. The scene plays out longer and it serves as an emotional climax to the film, a frank reminder that for everything people believe they know about this woman, at heart, for all her riches and fame and privilege, she is simply a human being trying to make sense of death. It’s this final moment in the car that reminds us.
This is an acting showcase and Portman (Black Swan) excels, delivering the best female performance I’ve seen this year at the movies. It’s an Oscar bait dream role and she nails it. She goes beyond mere imitation though Portman does an excellent job of that. Thanks to critic/blogger Jeffrey Wells for this great quote about the imitable real-life Jackie from author Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Right Stuff: “She had a certain Southern smile, which she had perhaps picked up at Foxcroft School, in Virginia, and her quiet voice, which came through her teeth, as revealed by the smile. She barely moved her lower jaw when she talked. The words seemed to slip between her teeth like exceedingly small slippery pearls.” Portman stunned me early with her exquisite recreation of Jackie and then she stunned me moments later with the depth of emotion she was able to convey in the scene where she stares into the Air Force One mirror, dabbing her husband’s blood from her face as her eyes are swollen with tears. Lorraine favors plenty of exacting close-ups to watch the array of emotions play across her face. She has moments of strength, moments of pettiness, moments of heart-tugging lows and weakness, and Portman is always fascinating, holding your attention rapt as you study her study. It’s a mesmerizing performance and one that deserves to earn Portman her second gold statue.
Jackie is a movie that has stayed with me for days after I’ve seen it. The exceptional and empathetic work by Portman is the first thing I recall, and then the thematic and symbolic relevance of the storylines as they fold on top of one another, providing a hypnotic and immersive portrait of a very famous woman who sought and spurned the spotlight. As far as I’m concerned this is the definitive film presentation of Jackie and Portman’s searing performance is the dazzling standard that won’t be beat. You walk away having additional appreciation for this woman but also further curiosity. The movie doesn’t expressly state who she is as a human being, providing a range of personas, some that conflict with one another, and allows you to put it all together for your interpretation. It’s a bold gambit and a fitting gesture for a woman defined by others’ perceptions.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Loosely based off the Norse mythology, Marvel’s hammer-wielding hero isn’t exactly the easiest character to relate to even as a superhero. Thor is a god after all. Not to be outdone, the man is also royalty, next in line to be king, so he’s in a special class of privilege. And yet 2011’s Thor was a pleasant surprise, a superhero movie that didn’t take itself too seriously, had modest aims, and embraced its sci-fi fantasy mélange. It was a movie where the sillier it got the better it worked. Now Thor: The Dark World, a.k.a. Thor 2, is ready to dominate the fall box-office and prove that Joe and Jane Popcorn can cheer for a pagan god.
Following the events of The Avengers, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is taken back to his home world of Asgard and put in prison. Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is trying to get back to Earth to reunite with his love, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Thor is being groomed for the throne of Asgard by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile, the nine worlds are nearing a convergence and dimensional gateways are opening, including one that infects Jane with an ancient biological weapon, the aether. The aether was used as a weapon by the dark elves, a race of creatures that was long ago defeated but its general, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), has been dormant and in hiding. Alterted, he assembles his surviving army to attack Asgard, kidnap Jane Foster, retrieve the aether, and destroy all life in the universe.
Thor is still a second tier character when it comes to Marvel superheroes (the guy just isn’t that interesting) but his franchise has, in only two starring films, become the most interesting. The scope of the Thor movies seems infinite. Whereas the other Marvel heroes are Earthbound and straightforward, Thor transports an audience to all sorts of alien worlds/cultures/conflicts, all of which open up more tantalizing storytelling avenues. Nothing seems out of place in a setting such as this, and so the surprises are more satisfying. I thought the best parts of 2011’s Thor were the Asgard moments, less the strained fish-out-of-water comedy of Thor assimilating on Earth. Thankfully, almost all of Thor 2 takes place off Earth save for a rousing, creative, inter-dimensional hopscotch of a climax. The realm of Asgard is given suitable scope thanks to the screenwriters and first-time feature film director Alan Taylor, who worked in TV for years. Taylor’s notable work on HBO’s Game of Thrones is probably what got him this gig, and his vision with fantasy is given significant breadth here. The Thor universe is an interesting mix of fantasy and sci-fi, reminiscent of Star Wars, and Taylor provides the necessary sweeping visuals, exciting action, and glorious shirtless close-ups we come to expect from our fantasy vistas. I was consistently impressed with Taylor’s command of visuals and shot selection, particularly how the man was able to juggle the various tones and needs of the script while still keeping an exposition-heavy film fun and light.
With rainbow bridges, dark elves, and enchanted hammers, thank goodness that Thor 2 keeps a steady and welcome sense of humor, never getting too serious even with the end of existence on the line. This jovial tone is refreshing when properly executed and contributes to the overall fun of the picture. We’ve had such sturm und drang when it comes to our superhero movies, particularly last summer’s Man of Steel misfire. I appreciate a dark and gloomy superhero tale like Nolan’s Batman films, or a satirical swipe like the original Kick-Ass, but we need stories that fit with their tone. When it comes to Thor, he’s still saving the world, rescuing his damsel, but the attitude, while on its face regal and serious, is anything but. The Thor movies accept the absurdities of its setting and just shrugs, plowing along. And now with Jane on Asgard, the fish-out-of-water comedy gets a different perspective. She gets to meet Thor’s parents (awkward) and an Asgardian who has a thing for the hunky Norseman (double awkward… I’ll stop the 90s catch phrases now). Thor 2 also gives Jane Foster much more to do, placing her front and center as a person integral to the stability of the universe. During the snazzy climax, she gets to run around and contribute in a meaningful manner. The there’s the plucky Kat Dennings (TV’s 2 Broke Girls) who gets to rattle off one-liners like a pro, many of them grounding the elevated levels of silliness. Much of the humor comes from the cocksure characters and their quips, particularly Loki.
And that’s as good as any place to interject my notion that Thor isn’t truly the main character in this film, despite what the title preceding the colon may lead you to believe. That honor goes to Loki, the greatest villain in any modern Marvel movie by far. He’s got the clearest arc in the movie, going through arguably the most personal pain, coming to a crossroads, and his conclusion certainly sets up sizable ramifications down the road for the presumptive Thor 3. Played by Hiddleston (War Horse), the character draws you in, even when he’s throwing his self-aggrandized temper tantrums you want to spend more time with him. He’s far and away the most developed and interesting character onscreen, and Hiddleston has such a gleeful malevolence to him that makes the character all the more electric and unpredictable. Thor 2 is really the story of Loki coming to terms with his life’s choices, the choices his adopted parents made, his sense of self and birthright, and moving forward, becoming his own man again. This is why Thor 2 ascends another entertainment rung by tying Loki into the main story, forcing him and Thor to work together against a common enemy.
In a film dominated by a charismatic Loki, it’s no wonder that Thor 2’s real bad guy falls woefully short. Malekith is a confusing and altogether lackluster antagonist in every conceivable way. He has no personality to him; he’s simple-minded with the goal of eradicating the universe. I don’t know about you, but my bad guys better have a pretty good reason for destroying the universe since they kinda live there too. This is one of the lazier villain plot devices because it has no nuance, no shading. Apparently before there was a universe there were dark elves. I don’t want to get caught in a chicken-egg paradox here, but was there a universe before the universe, cause I look at the universe like existence’s garage. The cars inside may change but the garage was standing before it all. Anyway, Malekith wants to destroy all life because he wants to, because certainly you’d think there would be enough space in space. He’s not even that threatening or given any particular advantage beyond some firepower. It’s no wonder that Loki runs circles around this chump in the villain department. Eccleston (Unfinished Song) is not at fault. The heavy makeup he’s under smothers the actor’s ability to polish this terrible character.
The rest of the acting fares better. At this point, we know what we’re getting with Hemsworth (Snow White and the Huntsman) as the title character. He’s a sturdy leading man with just enough appeal to satisfy, though part of it is that Thor is just dull as a hero. He was more entertaining when he was cocky and irresponsible. Portman (Black Swan) holds her own though the romance between her and Thor feels more forced. Hopkins (Red 2) strikes the right mix between regal and camp. While their roles aren’t exactly integral, it’s nice having a superhero movie stuffed with great actors like Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Clive Russell, and there’s even an amusing appearance by Chris O’Dowd, who effortlessly oozes charm (take note, Thor).
This a superhero movie that separates itself by its sheer sense of fun. Thor: The Dark World takes what worked in the previous movie and provides more of it. The campy, silly Asgard stuff is given even more time, the mischievous sense of humor is renewed, the fantasy worlds given more depth and better action/effects, and fan favorite Loki gets a big starring role this time with extra brotherly bickering. It’s not the best superhero movie, nor is it the best Marvel film of recent years, but Thor 2 knows what kind of movie it wishes to be and how to best achieve this. It’s a loopy, droll, and rather imaginative big-budget superhero film, while still finding ways to be somewhat generic with its overall plotting and character turns. While the action is suitably epic, it’s the character interactions that are the most enjoyable aspect. It seems excessively lazy to say that if you enjoyed the first Thor, you’ll probably enjoy the second one as well, but there it is. Perhaps next time the storyline won’t be as convoluted and we can get even more Loki. Barring that, I’ll accept additional Chris O’Dowd screen time.
Nate’s Grade: B