Review: Annihilation

Although critically and commercially reviled when released in 1982, genre fans now recognize John Carpenter’s The Thing as a horror classic, thanks in large part to its grotesque visuals and its exploration on the nature of identity. No one in the movie knows who the invading alien has infected and replicated, not even its host, until tendrils sprout from an arm and a toothy maw opens from a chest cavity.

Annihilation, the Alex Garland (Ex Machina) directed adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, builds on those themes, echoing aspects of the earlier film but refiguring its ideas, moving beyond body horror and toward something more existential.

Instead of an arctic base, Annihilation takes place off the Florida coast, where a crashed meteor emits a widening ring of radiation called “The Shimmer”.

And where The Thing was an all-male affair (save Adrienne Barbeau voicing a computer chess program), the team here consists entirely of women, each with her own reason for undertaking this certainly fatal mission. For Natalie Portman’s biologist Lena, that reason is to find out what happened to her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who, despite being the only soldier to return from a mission into The Shimmer, came back a different person.

Kane’s condition sounds troubling, and Lena certainly sees it that way, but Annihilation derives much of its power from its ambivilance about mutation. Change and replication are facts of life, as Lena explains in an early lecture about cellular mitosis, and the image of cells dividing and changing serve as the film’s central visual metaphor — sometimes advancing life and sometimes destroying it, in the form of cancer.

This permeable border between life and death, between one identity and another, drives the horror of Annihilation. As in The Thing, infected bodies twist and transmute into terrifyingly uncanny organisms; but in The Shimmer, where animal and mineral and vegetable merge together, the results are often as beautiful as they are unsettling. Radiation infuses Florida swampland with psychadelic rainbows and a yellow haze, mixing flowers of violet and blue into visitor’s flesh. The mutated creatures inhabiting The Shimmer unquestionably differ from things we’ve seen before, but we can’t be fully revulsed by them.

Garland further disrupts the audience with the structure of the piece, which seems to follow a fairly straightforward plot: the events of the film are related by a Lena who has already escaped The Shimmer and is being interviewed by another scientist. This storytelling conceit gives viewers certain expectations for its endpoint, establishing from the outset who lives and dies and basic motivations. But then the narrative itself mutates, as heretofore supportive women turn on one another, as new pieces of information are introduce, as Garland uses cameras inside cameras to blur the distinction between teller and tale. The story we thought we were watching, the people we thought we knew, reshape before our eyes.

Is that a bad thing? Are these new forms inherently more monstrous than the flawed versions we thought we knew? Annihilation refuses to answer those questions, and instead leaves us struggling with the implications of our answers, leaving us with a creeping sense of dread as our minds change.

Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

In the new Netflix original The Cloverfield Paradox, a failed science experiment sends a ship’s crew to a parallel Earth. Watching the movie, I also thought about alternate realities: worlds where stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo and Daniel Brühl get films equal to their talents; worlds where movies follow the lead of 10 Cloverfield Lane and use the franchise name to tell big-budget versions of unique sci-fi stories; worlds where Life is still the worst Alien knockoff in recent memory.

But since this is our only reality, we have to talk about what The Cloverfield Paradox actually is.

The Cloverfield Paradox is the Platonic ideal of a Netflix movie. There is some fantastic stuff here, ranging from outstanding performances from Mbatha-Raw and Oyelowo to fun gory bits involving worms exploding from a corpse. Anyone who looks up from doing their taxes or dishes or whatever odd job will be fully entertained by those moments. And then those people can return to their primary tasks and assume that the movie connects the dots between the cool stuff.

It doesn’t, and most of the blame falls on director Julius Onah. That’s not to say that Oren Uziel’s script (from a story he conceived with Doug Jung) works; in fact, it barely reaches a functional level. We understand who each character is — Oyelowo the emotional captain, Mbatha-Raw the wounded protagonist, Chris O’Dowd the comic relief — but they get little to do except state their motivations.

And while the parallel universe conceit does allow for a couple of effective grossouts, the movie’s plotting reduces its charms to non sequiturs. It’s neat that the corpse has lots of worms in it, but why didn’t other stuff end up in there? It’s interesting that various nations are working together, but why is Tam (played by Chinese star Ziyi Zhang) pulling a Chewbacca and only speaking Mandarin to her Anglophonic shipmates?

In fact, the movie finds a way to turn almost all of its strengths into weaknesses. The cast puts in top-notch work, particularly Mbutha-Raw, Oyelowo, and Roger Davies; but their talents serve one-dimensional characters and unearned emotional beats.

Davies gets the worst of it. He plays a man connected to Mbutha-Raw’s scientist, but exists almost entirely in his own side plot that serves no purpose other than referencing other Cloverfield films. Despite acting against nothing but a disembodied telephone voice or text messages or a sleeping little girl, Davies feels like a real person in an absurd situation.

Onah’s direction wastes those performances (and those cool gore moments!) in this mess of a film. The tone is all over the place, not only in the ways I’ve already mentioned, but perhaps most egregiously with O’Dowd’s character, whose jokes feel tame compared to the crazy things occurring on the ship, thus dulling the effect of them both.

Although he’s clearly following Ridley Scott’s realistic take in Alien, the Paul W.S. Anderson schlock classic Event Horizon should have been Onah’s guide. With more Sam Neill and Lawrence Fishburne style scene-chewing and less realism, this movie would have been far more memorable.

But such thinking brings us back to alternate worlds, and that’s not where The Cloverfield Paradox exists. Instead, it’s just a movie on Netflix, made to be watched as you fall asleep after spending too much time scrolling through the “Recently Added” section.

Review: The Shape of Water

In her role as Elisa Esposito, the mute cleaner who falls in love with the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) held in the government facility where she works, Sally Hawkings conveys passion and compassion without uttering a word. This feat is particularly impressive because Elisa shares several scenes with Richard Strickland, a cold war era government official played by Michael Shannon at his Michael Shannon-est. His character boils with barely contained contempt until finally exploding in volcanic rage at his perceived inferiors, but Elisa’s anger and ardor outpaces Strickland’s bloviating.

The clash between insiders and outcasts drives Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, even more so than the romance plot that provides the film’s most memorable moments. A powerful man in the the early 60s US government, who lives with his attractive family in a fully mod-conned home, Strickland knows only the privilage he confuses for morality. To justify his lack of compassion toward the Amphibian Man, Strickland reminds Elisa and her partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer) that “the Lord looks like you and me,” before realizing that he’s addressing a mute and a black woman and clarifies: “A little more like me than you.”

But while Strickland’s certainty makes him competitive and cruel, Elisa’s condition allows her to bond with Zelda, with a gay struggling artist played by Richard Jenkins, with a Russian spy who puts love of nature over love of country, and with the Amphibian Man himself. Keenly aware of how her conditon marks her as inhuman to people like Strickland, Elisa finds other signifiers of humanity, those that Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor highlight throughout the film: a love of art, sexual desire, basic empathy.

Del Toro further rebukes Strickland’s egoism in the way he presents the film’s world. Using almost nothing but tracking shots, holding still for only seconds at a time, Del Toro floats his camera along the sets that cinematographer Dan Laustsen bathes in greens and yellows and blues, replicating the Amphibian Man’s habitat. Strickland, and the US government that employs him or the Soviet forces who oppose him, may think that he runs the world, but every time the camera drifts from an overflowing tub to a spilled glass to a rain-soaked window pain, we’re told just how much these forces are out of their depth.

I know I’ve hardly said anything about the romance aspect, which is, obviously, a pretty important part of a romance story. But it’s the way that Del Toro reimagines power structures that makes the romance work. An unconventional love story, in part, shows us how loveless our conventions can be. The Shape of Water creates a world in which these conventions get washed away.

Edgar Wright’s The World’s End: To Err is Human (Renewed Mind Movie Talk, Episode 09)

New episode of Renewed Mind Movie Talk!

In this episode, we look at the last entry in the Cornetto Trilogy, a series of movies directed by Edgar Wright (Baby Driver) and featuring actor/writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost: Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World’s End (2013).

The World’s End is part midlife crisis movie and part alien invasion movie, pitting the drunken burnout Gary King (Pegg) against The Network, invaders who offer humanity perfection. The movie clearly sides with the exuberant but destructive King, but I suspect most Christian’s sympathies would lie with The Network. After all, The Network, comes from above and promise to make humans perfect, but only if they get rid of everything they love. Sound familiar?

In this episode, we will look at how The World’s End portrays the appeal of King’s behavior and the fear of The Network, as well as Jesus’s love for the broken, as described in Mark 2:15-17.

Check it out and consider sharing it with other movie lovers (at least those who don’t mind getting some Jesus in their sci-fi movies)!