ANNIHILATION (2018) – Natalie Portman Leads All-Female Team in this Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Adventure


The all woman team in ANNIHILATION (2018)

While superhero movies have captured all the hype and box office receipts in recent years, science fiction films have quietly enjoyed a resurgence of their own. The last few years has seen a decent number of science fiction films landing at the cinema, most of them very good high quality affairs.

You can go ahead and add ANNIHILATION (2018) to that list.

ANNIHILATION was written and directed by Alex Garland, the man who also wrote and directed EX MACHINA (2014), one of those recent high quality science fiction flicks, a thought-provoking thriller about artificial intelligence.  Here in ANNIHILATION, Garland takes on a topic that is rather innovative and original.

In ANNIHILATION, biologist and college professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is dealing with the absence of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), an army officer who’s been missing in action for over a year. One night, Kane returns home, but he’s different, distant, but before Lena can find out why, Kane becomes violently ill.  She rushes him to the hospital, but before they can get there, the ambulance is intercepted by the military, and both Kane and Lena are extracted from the vehicle.

When Lena awakes, she finds herself being questioned by a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lena learns the truth of her husband’s mission, that he and his unit had been sent in to investigate a mysterious area called the “Shimmer.” Numerous parties had been sent in, and none had returned, until Kane.

When Lena learns that Dr. Ventress is leading an all female team— a scientific decision because so far the investigators had all been male and they had all failed— into the Shimmer, she decides to join them, believing she owes it to her husband to learn what happened to him and what exactly is going on inside the bizarre area.

The Shimmer began when an unknown object struck a lighthouse on the south coast of the United States, and afterwards the lighthouse began to emit an unusual aura which over the course of the year continued to grow, and Dr. Ventress predicts that unless it is stopped it will continue until it covers cities, states, and eventually, everywhere.  The Shimmer looks like a huge oily wall which distorts one’s vision, and so you can’t really see beyond it.  Those who have entered, have not returned, except, of course, for Kane.

When Lena and the all women team enter, they immediately realize that they have entered a place where the laws of nature have changed, and it’s up to them to find out how and why and to survive its hostile environment.

ANNIHILATION tells a fascinating tale that works on multiple levels. Sure, the thought-provoking science fiction ideas are there, in this case some innovative thinking involving refraction and DNA, but ANNIHILATION works even better as an adventure and a thriller.

There are some very exciting sequences here involving some frightening creatures which live inside the Shimmer, in particular an enormous crocodile and later an extremely intense sequence involving something that was once a bear. There are some definite edge-of-your seat moments in this one.

My favorite part though is the female cast.  It’s a fresh take on a science fiction adventure tale like this to have the main players all be women.

Natalie Portman leads the way with a strong performance as Lena. She gets to express two sides of this character.  There’s the cold, clinical biologist side, as she investigates the strange phenomena inside the Shimmer, and since Lena is ex-military, having spent several years in the army, we get to see her no-nonsense kick-ass side, as she takes on the formidable creatures inside this strange land.  Portman excels at both.

I like Portman a lot, and it was fun to see her in this action role after her meticulous performance as Jackie Kennedy in JACKIE (2016).

Jennifer Jason Leigh is also excellent as Dr. Ventress.  As the leader of the group, she is as tough as nails in her determination to reach the lighthouse in the hope of resolving this dilemma. While Leigh has enjoyed a long career, she’s turned in some particularly impressive supporting performances of late, including memorable roles in GOOD TIME (2017) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015).

The other three women are also notable.  Tuva Novotny as Cass, Gina Rodriguez as Anya, and Tessa Thompson as Josie round out the cast in impressive fashion. Thompson was also excellent starring opposite Michael B. Jordan in CREED (2015).

And Oscar Isaac is effective as Kane, Lena’s husband who’s not quite the same once he comes home.  Isaac also starred in Alex Garland’s previous science fiction flick, EX MACHINA, and he’s known now for his recurring role as Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies.

ANNIHILATION is not perfect. It’s slow at times, more so during its third act.  Early on, when the audience is first learning about the Shimmer, the story is so engrossing that pacing is not a problem.  But once we start to get answers, things slow down a bit as the film moves towards its conclusion.

The CGI effects are uneven.  Some of the creatures look fearsome, while others look fake.

The story works if you don’t think about it a whole lot. I couldn’t help but think that if such an event were really happening, there’d be more of a military presence around the Shimmer.  We’re led to believe that there is, but it’s not something we see much of. In fact, we see hardly anyone other than Dr. Ventress and her team.

Still, I enjoyed the screenplay by director Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. The dialogue is strong and the concepts explored in the story rather fascinating.

And the film looks stunning. The mind-boggling world inside the Shimmer contains some memorable cinematic images.

The whole film has a sort of LOST (2004-2010) vibe to it, and if you mix in a little bit of ZOO (2015-2017) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (any version you’d like) you’ve got ANNIHILATION, a nice mix of edge-of-your-seat thrills and thought-provoking science fiction.

But its strongest attribute is its all-female team, which by far is the most refreshing part of this exciting fantasy adventure.



GOOD TIME (2017) – A Thrill Ride You Do Not Want to Miss



GOOD TIME (2017) is a strange title for a movie about a bank robbery gone wrong and its aftermath, but don’t let that stop you from seeing this one because GOOD TIME is one of the more intense, energetic, and insane thrillers to come out this year.

It’s a movie you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME (2017) is the story of two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie).  Nick is mentally challenged, and Connie is very protective of his brother, but that doesn’t stop him from involving Nick in an armed bank robbery. During their escape, Connie eludes the police, but Nick is arrested.

Connie approaches a bail bondsman to pay for his brother’s release from jail, but he is $10,000 short, so he turns to his friend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and asks her to put up the money for him.  Corey is somewhat unhinged and easily manipulated, and it doesn’t take Connie long to convince her to charge the $10,000 on her mother’s credit card, promising her that it’s a loan, and that she’ll get the money right back.  But Corey’s elderly mother quickly cancels the card, causing an emotional scene at the bail bondsman’s office.  Connie learns the money doesn’t matter because his brother has been transferred to a hospital and cannot be eligible for bail until his health his cleared.

Connie finds out which hospital his brother is being held in and plans to break him out. What follows is a roller coaster ride of a night as Connie faces one obstacle after another in his attempts to free his brother, and the film treats its audience to one twist after another.

GOOD TIME doesn’t stop.  It’s one of the more frenetic movies of the year, and certainly one of the most satisfying.  It’s a ride you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME was directed by brothers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.  Perhaps the fact that these two guys are brothers is why they captured so expertly the brotherly bond between Connie and Nick.  Or perhaps it’s just that they are two talented guys, and they are talented, very much so.

Benny not only co-directed this movie, but he also plays Nick, the mentally challenged brother, and it’s a phenomenal performance.  There’s nothing artificial about it.  He makes Nick seem like the real deal.

And Josh not only co-directed this one, but co-wrote it with Ronald Bronstein.  It’s an excellent script with realistic dialogue and vibrant, living characters.  Nearly every character who appears in this movie is interesting, a testament both to the acting and to the superior writing.

The best part of GOOD TIME though is just how creative it is.  It opens with a long dialogue-driven scene between Nick and his psychiatrist, and it has the feel of a documentary, and so you’re sitting there early on thinking, what is the deal here?  I thought this was supposed to be a thriller? And then Connie shows up, chews out the doctor for the way he’s treating his brother, and the film is off and running.  It takes off like a rocket and never looks back.

The camerawork is phenomenal and really brings you into Connie’s world and what it’s like to be him.  The camera gets in close, as there’s some nifty hand-held camerawork. And there are a lot of cool memorable scenes in this one.  The robbery early on and the chase afterwards is as intense a sequence as you’ll find, as are Connie’s efforts to break Nick out of the hospital.  There’s a sequence at an amusement park that is equally as good.

The ending is also suspenseful.

Now, the very ending is a different story.  After such a thrill ride, the movie is just begging for a high-octane conclusion , but that’s not what happens.  However, somehow, it still works, especially when you think back to the first scene in the movie.  The story comes full circle, and the ending, while not explosive, makes sense.

As I said, co-director Benny Safdie also stars as Nick, and he turns in a very strong performance.

But the performance of the movie belongs to Robert Pattinson as Connie.  Regardless of what you think about the TWILIGHT movies, it’s best to simply pocket them away and move on, because Pattinson is proving to be a very good actor.

This is his best performance yet, and he gives Connie a depth not often found in a character like this.  He definitely cares for his brother, and yet he still puts his brother in harm’s way. Connie is a man who thinks he’s better than everybody else and has the gumption to try to prove it, but as most people who think this way eventually find out, that’s not really the case.

Earlier this year, Pattinson had a supporting role as a reporter in THE LOST CITY OF Z, a film which I thought was just okay.  He delivered a very good performance, and he’s even better here in GOOD TIME.

Jennifer Jason Leigh knocks it out of the park in a brief bit as Connie’s friend Corey, an unstable woman who is driven to help Connie because he promised to take a vacation with her.  Likewise, Taliah Webster enjoys some remarkable moments as 16 year-old Crystal whose grandmother takes in Connie temporarily, setting up some situations between Connie and Crystal that are both refreshing and disturbing.

Barkhad Abdi, nominated for an Oscar for his role in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) has a memorable bit as a security guard.  And Hiphop artist Necro shows up as a drug selling heavy.

There’s also an absolutely frenzied and very effective music score by Daniel Lopatin that really adds a lot to the movie.  It reminded me of something John Carpenter would have written.

Without doubt, GOOD TIME is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  Its relentless pace will have you on the edge of your seat throughout, the acting will have you caring about the characters, and the screenplay and creative direction will keep it all real and believable.

The title GOOD TIME has little to do with what actually happens on-screen.  It does, however, describe what the audience will have while watching it.