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

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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.

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) – Ambitious Sequel Overlong and Lifeless

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I guess I’m just not a fan of the BLADE RUNNER movies.

I was never all that into the original BLADE RUNNER (1982) film starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott, based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? —- now, the novel I do like— that has a huge loyal following among science fiction fans.  The 1982 film just never moved me.

Now, here comes BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017),  starring Ryan Gosling and again Harrison Ford, a bigger and badder sequel to the 1982 movie, receiving high praise from both critics and fans alike.

I’ve finally been swayed, right?  This film is so good I’ve finally overcome my apathy for BLADE RUNNER, right?

Wrong.

Which is why I said, I guess I just don’t like these movies.

“K” (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner, the name given to officers who hunt down and “retire” (yes, that means “kill”) replicants, the artificial life forms that the powers that be fear because they are becoming too human.  His latest target is somewhat of an unusual one, and it leads him on a search for Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner and main character in the first BLADE RUNNER movie, who’s been missing for thirty years.

Denis Villeneuve directed BLADE RUNNER 2049, which is another reason I’m surprised I didn’t like this one more than I did.  Villeneuve directed ARRIVAL (2016) and SICARIO (2015), two movies I liked a lot, and PRISONERS (2013), which was also very good.

There’s no shortage of ambition here.  This is a massive movie, filled with eye-popping special effects and a futuristic landscape that rivals the one created by Ridley Scott in the original.  All the technical stuff is there and works.

The story also has a lot to say.  Hampton Fancher and Michael Green wrote the screenplay, and it covers a lot of ground.  The best part of the Philip K. Dick novel is the exploration of the line between human and replicant, and the idea that a thinking sentient being, albeit an artificially created one, would fight for its own survival and not take kindly to the idea that it had an expiration date.  This has always been my favorite part of the BLADE RUNNER universe, and it’s more applicable today as great strides have been made in the field of artificial intelligence, and I believe that soon this concept will leave the realm of science fiction and become science fact.

And yet the problem I had with the original BLADE RUNNER, I have again here with BLADE RUNNER 2049, and that is the film has no soul.  It’s cold and lifeless, and its story, in spite of the scientific and ethical ramifications, fails to resonate.  Nothing that happens in this movie moved me one iota.

Which is too bad because a lot happens in this movie.  So much that it takes a whopping 2 hours and 43 minutes to tell its story.  That’s a long time to sit through a movie that doesn’t resonate, which is another reason I really did not enjoy BLADE RUNNER 2049.

There were parts I did like.  Its opening scene, for example, where “K” hunts down a replicant, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) is a good one.  The fight sequence between the two is a rough and violent as they get.

Nearly all the scenes between “K” and his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) are not only watchable but for me were flat-out the best scenes in the movie, but their storyline is secondary to the main one in the film.  The scene in particular where technology enables Joi to enter the body of a prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) so she can physically love “K” is probably the best scene in the film

And the first encounter between “K” and Rick Deckard is memorable, but it’s an hour and 40 minutes into the movie before this meeting takes place.

So, for me, pacing was certainly an issue, but the larger problem was that the story never grabbed me, the characters never won me over, and so I sat there for nearly three hours being visually stimulated but that was about it.  The story and characters fell flat for me and pretty much bored me to tears.

I like Ryan Gosling a lot, and he’s certainly good here, but “K” is just such dull boring character I just never found myself all that excited about him.

In a strange way, I actually enjoyed Harrison Ford more in this movie than in the original BLADE RUNNER.  It’s too bad he doesn’t show up until 1 hour and 40 minutes into the film.  He’s got some good lines, though, and his character is integral to the main plot and main mystery of this one.

But hands down the two best performances in BLADE RUNNER 2049 belong to two of the women actresses in the film.

First, there’s Ana de Armas as Joi, who happened to be my favorite character in the movie.  Joi is a holographic creation, and yet through de Armas’ performance, she’s more lifelike and possesses more genuine emotion than any other character in the movie.  She previously starred in WAR DOGS (2016) and HANDS OF STONE (2016),  a film about boxer Roberto Duran that was panned by critics but was one of my favorite movies that year.  Ana de Armas was excellent in HANDS OF STONE, and she’s better here in BLADE RUNNER 2049.

Then there’s Sylvia Hoeks as Luv.  She’s the most effective villain in the movie.  It’s a dominating performance, one that I enjoyed more than Jared Leto’s.  He plays the main baddie in the film, Niander Wallace, and he just doesn’t resonate.  While I enjoyed Hoeks’s scenes, Leto’s scenes sadly put me to sleep.

Robin Wright has a couple of compelling moments as the stone cold police Lieutenant Joshi, and there are some other veteran actors on hand who add to the mix as well. There’s Barkhad Abdi, the Oscar-nominated actor for CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) who we just saw in GOOD TIME (2017), and there’s Lennie James, who plays Morgan on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

And both Edward James Olmos and Sean Young reprise their roles from the original BLADE RUNNER, but their presence is reduced to nothing more than brief cameos.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 is ambitious, cinematic, and loud, but it’s also cold, lifeless, and terribly long and dull, which is a shame because its main premise, the examination of the line between replicants and humans, and its exploration of the idea that artificially created replicants are so close to life that it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between them and humans, which ultimately leads to the discussion of just what it is that constitutes life, is a thought-provoking idea that is worthy of an epic movie.

Unfortunately, BLADE RUNNER 2049 isn’t that movie.

And that’s because while technologically it scores points on all fronts, emotionally, it’s as barren as its futuristic landscape, filled with eye-popping visuals and ear-shattering noises, but without any life whatsoever.

The replicants deserve better.

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YOUR MOVIE LISTS: THE TERMINATOR MOVIES

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YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  THE TERMINATOR Movies TheTerminator

By Michael Arruda

With the upcoming release of TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015), the latest installment in the TERMINATOR series opening on June 30, 2015, here’s a look back at the TERMINATOR movies:

 

THE TERMINATOR (1984)

Directed by James Cameron

Screenplay by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, with additional dialogue by William Wisher, Jr.

Terminator:  Arnold Schwarzenegger

Sarah Connor:  Linda Hamilton

Kyle Reese:  Michael Biehn

Lieutenant Ed Traxler:  Paul Winfield

Detective Hal Vukovich:  Lance Henriksen

Music by Brad Fiedel

Running Time:  107 minutes

The film that pretty much made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star.  His role as the brutal unstoppable robot Terminator is one of his best.

This early James Cameron film is tighter and less elaborate than his subsequent efforts and is better for it.  It’s a gripping thriller filled with edge-of-your-seat moments, a nonstop thrill ride that satisfies from beginning to end.

Linda Hamilton also stands out as Sarah Connor, the unknowing young woman who suddenly finds herself a target of the Terminator, sent back in time to kill her because in the future her son will lead the resistance against the machines which eventually try to take over the human race.

Notable also as the only film in the series where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is the villain.  In future installments he becomes the hero, a switch that worked to some degree, but the fact of the matter is he was so good as the villainous Terminator that his evil take on the character is definitely lacking in future installments.

For my money, this first TERMINATOR movie is the best of the series.

 

 

TERMINATOR 2:  JUDGMENT DAY (1991)

Directed by James Cameron

Screenplay by James Cameron and William Wisher

The Terminator:  Arnold Schwarzenegger

Sarah Connor:  Linda Hamilton

John Connor:  Edward Furlong

T-1000:  Robert Patrick

Music by Brad Fiedel

Running Time: 137 minutes

This TERMINATOR sequel gets the full James Cameron treatment, as everything is bigger and more elaborate.  As a result, this one showcases superior special effects, and many consider this sequel to be the best in the series, although I give a slight edge to the original.

It would have been an even darker movie than the first one except that Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is now “good” and a hero, and the villain here is Robert Patrick’s T-1000.  Patrick isn’t bad, and the special effects which create his liquid transformation abilities are phenomenal, but he’s no Schwarzenegger, and the film suffers for it.  The Schwarzenegger baddie is definitely missed here.

Still, it’s another exciting thrill ride, a worthy successor to the original.

 

 

TERMINATOR 3:  RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003)

Directed by Jonathan Mostow

Screenplay by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris

Terminator:  Arnold Schwarzenegger

John Connor:  Nick Stahl

Kate Brewster:  Claire Danes

T-X:  Kristanna Loken

Music by Marco Beltrami

Running Time:  109 minutes

Third film in the series is the weakest, although it has grown on me over the years.  This tale of another Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back in time to protect a now adult John Connor (Nick Stahl) from a more advanced and much more dangerous Terminator, the T-X (Kristanna Loken) suffers heavily from  the  “been there, done that” syndrome.  Notable for the first ever female terminator, the T-X, and Kristanna Loken does a nice job in the role, although still, she’s not as memorable or effective as Schwarzenegger was in the original film.

James Cameron’s talents are definitely missed in this third installment.

 

 

TERMINATOR:  SALVATION (2009)

Directed by McG

Screenplay by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris

John Connor:  Christian Bale

Marcus Wright:  Sam Worthington

Blair Williams:  Moon Bloodgood

Dr. Serena Kogan:  Helena Bonham Carter

Kyle Reese:  Anton Yelchin

Kate Connor:  Bryce Dallas Howard

Music by Danny Elfman

Running Time:  115 minutes

First TERMINATOR movie without Arnold Schwarzenegger is an attempt to reinvent the series.  A lot of fans did not like this movie, but I found it interesting and fun.  Sam Worthington plays new character Marcus Wright whose mysterious past drives this story along.  Christian Bale is decent as John Connor, although the story revolves more around Wright than it does Connor.

Not bad, and certainly helped by a strong cast. Good job by all involved.

 

 

TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015)

Directed by Alan Taylor

Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier

Terminator:  Arnold Schwarzenegger

Sarah Connor:  Emilia Clarke

Kyle Reese:  Jai Courtney

Detective O’Brien:  J.K.Simmons

John Connor:  Jason Clarke

T-1000:  Byung-hun Lee

T-800: Aaron V. Williamson

Music by Lorne Balfe

Running Time:  125 minutes

Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the series in a story that features an alternate timeline, as Kyle Reese is once again sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, only this time things are completely different because the timeline has been changed.

Opens on June 30, 2015.

 

 

There was also the TV series TERMINATOR:  THE SARAH CHRONICLES which ran for two seasons (2008-2009) and followed Sarah Connor and her son John after the events of TERMINATOR 2:  JUDGMENT DAY.

 

 

That’s it for now.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael