Category Archives: Sci-Fi

Movie Review: “Annihilation”

Maybe I’m just intellectually benighted, but I didn’t think Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel “Annihilation” was as groundbreaking as I was told. But when I learned a movie adaptation was forthcoming—and that Alex Garland, the talented director of 2015’s brilliant “Ex Machina,” was behind the camera—I was certainly willing to give the story a second look.

The good news? The film is a lot more fun than the book. The bad? It has no idea what it’s trying to say.

The plot starts straightforwardly: when a strange meteor crashes near a coastal lighthouse, government sensors soon detect the presence of the Shimmer, an atmosphere-distorting phenomenon that repels all radio signals. The Shimmer extends across a large tract of swampland, its boundaries expanding outward with no slowdown in sight. By the time the film begins, no expeditions into the Shimmer have returned. Into the mysterious zone strides Johns Hopkins biologist Lena (Natalie Portman)—mourning her husband’s own recent disappearance in the Shimmer—alongside four other female scientists. Their mission: reach the lighthouse at the heart of the Shimmer and discover what’s causing the disturbance. Survival-horror carnage ensues.

One thing in particular stands out: “Annihilation” is a gorgeously designed movie. The lush, genetically unstable interior of the Shimmer comes to life vividly and hauntingly, and ominous sound design adds to the sense of unease.

Garland has taken plenty of liberties with his source material, most of which work to the film’s benefit. Indeed, the movie’s at its best when it embraces its own straight-up pulpiness: “Annihilation” is a lot scarier and more enjoyable than last year’s “Life.” Here we get a gigantic alligator with row after row of sharklike teeth, a mutant bear that can emulate the screams of its past victims, fields of crystalline trees, and bisected bodies fused to thrones of spiraling fungus. If I had to describe this movie in one sentence, it’d be “‘Event Horizon’ in the Everglades”—indeed, we even get a horrifying video clip of a past expedition degenerating into madness.

But unfortunately, things fizzle out in the third act. Just as the story should be rising to a crescendo of dread, we get a climax that feels like a derivative mashup of “The Thing” and “Aliens.” It’s hard to escape the feeling that the final reveal should’ve been something really dreadful, in the vein of Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser.” Instead, we’re left with an ending that feels both thematically ambiguous and disappointingly final.

As a critic, I’m willing to give films an awful lot of leeway when it comes to messaging (I’ve talked about “Furious 7” as an example of virtue ethics, for crying out loud). Alas, I must conclude that “Annihilation” really doesn’t have anything to say. This is a glossy B-movie that wants to be perceived as more intelligent and “grown-up” than it actually is. And while there are a lot of writers who will probably label this movie “thought-provoking,” I question what thoughts will actually be provoked other than “aliens are bad.” None of the characters are drawn in sufficient detail to prove particularly memorable, and the script steadfastly refuses to provide much context or background.

But notwithstanding its abortive attempts at philosophizing, “Annihilation” makes for an entertaining watch (and I imagine it’ll hold up pretty well on subsequent viewings). At the very least, it’s a reasonably original contribution to its genre that throws some cool monsters at the screen. And for me, that might be enough.

Come for the art design, stay for the mutant creatures. Just don’t expect “Ex Machina 2.”

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Posted by on February 25, 2018 in Sci-Fi


Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

(It’s been way too long since I last reviewed movies—happily, it’ll be business as usual going forward. Also, be warned that there are lots of spoilers in this review.)

“The Last Jedi” is not a crowd-pleaser in the vein of “The Force Awakens.” It’s something very different indeed: a Star Wars movie that moves the saga forward without relying on nostalgia or high-dollar action scenes. It’s not the Star Wars film I would’ve made if given the chance, but that’s because Rian Johnson is far bolder than me, and “The Last Jedi” is all the better for it.

Picking up only moments after its predecessor’s conclusion, “The Last Jedi” opens with a dramatic space battle as the Resistance flees its home base. Meanwhile, our heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) confronts long-lost Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the monastic world of Ahch-To, determined to find the truth about her dark-side counterpart Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The supporting characters—arrogant pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), renegade stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and shy mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran)—all have plenty to do, but at bottom this isn’t their movie: we’re all here for Rey, Kylo, and the truth behind Luke’s mysterious words from the trailer: “It’s time for the Jedi to end.”

That’s not to say the B-plot (the Resistance’s flight from its enemies) isn’t entertaining, because it certainly is: indeed, one of the film’s best scenes takes place on a casino planet that simultaneously adopts and subverts the saga’s longstanding cantina tropes. Benicio Del Toro turns up as a lowlife “codebreaker” and Laura Dern does solid work as a Mon Mothma-lite figure. There’s a sense, though, in which at least some of this feels like padding: every time the camera cut away from the Rey/Luke drama and jumped back to the Resistance fleet, I found myself itching to get back to Ahch-To. (I still have about a million questions, but maybe that’s for the best; good worldbuilding means never giving away all the answers.)

On other fronts, there’s a lot to like here. Johnson’s visual style—a medley of dramatic pans and dives and striking close-ups—is a pleasant change from J.J. Abrams’s more conventional approach. John Williams’s score is similarly great, although I do miss the bombastic choirs of “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes.” And the effects—including one great particularly great use of puppetry—are everything one could hope for.

That said, the ending of “The Last Jedi” is bound to be controversial. There’s a part of me that wanted the film to end in a giant, glorious, propulsive revenge-of-Luke-Skywalker moment: don’t we all secretly want to see our legendary hero wipe out a whole army with the power of the Force? Or at the very least, beat Kylo Ren to a pulp in a brutal lightsaber duel?

On balance, though, I think the understated elegance of the film’s finale is perhaps its greatest strength. When “The Last Jedi” begins, Luke has lost faith in the Force and in the Jedi ways. That much was obvious from the firs previews: in the leadup to this movie’s release, some commentators speculated that Luke would shepherd in an era of “Gray Jedi” committed to walking a path between the light and dark sides of the Force. But that’s not how this story goes. Instead, in choosing a path of self-sacrifice and nonviolence, Luke fully manifests the power of the light side in a way never before seen onscreen; crushing armies might look cool onscreen, but doing so would be fundamentally inconsistent with Luke’s character and the philosophy he stands for. Johnson understands this, and the ending of “The Last Jedi” accordingly reflects that.

If Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, this may be the most polarizing Star Wars movie of all time. That’s because it’s something truly different from what we’ve seen before—there’s not even really a straight-up lightsaber duel. The way I felt leaving “The Force Awakens” was very different from the way I felt leaving “The Last Jedi”: exuberant and energized in the first case, contemplative and reflective in the latter. But that doesn’t mean “The Last Jedi” isn’t a success. In fact, it may on balance be the most masterful installment of all, even if it doesn’t leave audiences with the warm nostalgia fuzzies they crave. This is a movie about losing and regaining faith, about the dangers of separating dogma from discipline and praxis, and about loss and failure and the risks of mentorship. It is not your typical blockbuster, and not the Star Wars experience audiences expect, and that’s what makes it great.

A profoundly satisfying film that doesn’t just retread old ground, but pushes the saga forward in stirring ways.

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Posted by on December 16, 2017 in Sci-Fi

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