Annihilation (2018)
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Annihilation (2018)

In the current sociopolitical environment, the studios are under pressure to increase the significance of women in movies on both siders od=f the camera. Women filmmakers are finally receiving recognition during award season. A highly publicized area where women are in ascendance in the traditionally male-dominated film genre of the action-oriented quest. It is not unusual for the initial forays into such uncharted territory for those early efforts to fall short of expectations. With that stated it, is especially notable that the subject of this consideration scored a solid hit, ‘Annihilation.’ The fundamental focus of the contents explores themes, archetypes, and circumstances familiar to even the casual film buff. A strange, most probably extraterrestrial phenomena. Under the traditional paradigm, the expedition would be comprised of an assortment of men frequently with a standardized composition, leader, big gun, electronics, and grifter. This formula established since the war movies popular in the forties, in recent years a few spots have reconfigured to be portrayed by women, but the troupe remains male-dominated, breaking with this Hollywood standard. The essential plot constructs have been a substantial portion of the genre, changing the intrepid band of explorers into women, made all the difference transforming a mundane tale into an exciting adventure. This is a much more complicated process for the screenwriter and director than performing a search and replace on the manuscript flipping the gender roles of the principal characters. That would produce a poorly made parody of the overly macho norm. The adaptation of the first part of a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer artfully accomplished by Alex Garland, who also served as the director. His previous scripts encompassed several aspects of science fiction ranging from the space missions, ‘Sunshine,’ and the zombie variant, ’28 Days Later’. More recently he provided the screenplay for the brutally frightening, ‘Ex Machina.’ That film was also his initial foray into direction. He has demonstrated a rare insight into how to create a fully formed, realistic female character. This resulted in a narrative that is perfectly suited to explore the inherent feminine strength and resourcefulness.

Stories of this type are predicated on a mystery that defies the usual avenues of investigation. This situation necessitates creating a specialized team to undertake a potentially suicidal mission. In this instance, that mystery takes the form of an inexplicable near a coast on the Southern shore of the United States. An unnatural shimmer of iridescent light expresses the zone. Unmanned probes and a highly trained military expedition were dispatched to pierce the veil, but no one has returned. That is until one soldier did reappear, Kane (Oscar Isaac), a member of the elite Army Special Forces. Fortunately for the convent progression of the narrative Kane’s wife, Lena (Natale Portman), has a Ph.D. in molecular Biology Lena is currently a professor in a prestigious university having served several years in the United States Army. This places her in a unique position, the requisite degree in the sciences, military training and personal dedication for undertaking such a dangerous assignment. Lena has been trying her best to piece her life together after nearly a year of her husband’s disappearance. As a member of the elite Special Forces, Lena had begrudgingly become accustomed to Kane’s absence under mysterious, need to know circumstances. This was different, the degree and feel of the withheld information made this solider/scientist suspicious. Suddenly, Kane reappears. He has swept away to a government facility along with Lena. Psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), provides a version of the details to Lena, sufficient to heighten her curiosity. As circumstances unfold, a spot opens on the next exploratory team and her experience and training make Lena an acceptable replacement. The team consists entirely of women, a fact that is presented in a delightfully straightforward fashion. To the credit of the filmmaker and screenwriter, this situation is presented as de rigueur, not such an anomaly that a mention need=ed be continually cited. I have always maintained the to have a change accepted as mainstream it must be presented as normal, not as something different. This film achieves this with the concept that a team of highly trained specialist could consist entirely of women. Dr, Ventress is the team leader with Lena serving as the exobiologist. The remainder of the team consists of physicist Josie Radeck (Tessa, Thompson) geologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). Most will recognize Ms. Leigh from her impressive list of credit that unbelievably extends back 35 years. Ms. Thompson will be instantly recognized as one of the latest additions to the assembled company of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She was the undeniably notable breakout star of the recent ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ portraying Valkyrie. Another MCU alumnus is present, albeit a male with Wong from ‘Daxter Strange’, Benedict Wong. This diverse and extremely talented selection of performers can pull the audience into a visually stunning setting and fantastical proportions. It takes a group of skilled actors to perform in a CGI intensive movie retaining the emphasis on the involved narrative without sacrificing the physiological nuances or emotional impact brought by the deep humanity inherent in the central themes.

It appears that the filmmakers were, not content with mealy subverting the testosterone-laden format of the quest to save the world genre. They successfully undermined many of the associated clichés and outdated tropes that audiences have comfortably known. The first reaction to this observation will understandably attribute the realignment of narrative perspective to the flip in gender roles. This is a superficial assessment ignoring the scope and ongoing social impact provided by this film. The ultimate test for this hypothesis is to question whether a male cast would have improved the ability of the movie to tell the story and, ultimately entertain the audience. Not on, ly is the answer to that hypothetical a resounding, "no," but the film also goes beyond that fundamental goal of a motion picture. After the final credits have finished and the audience returns their focus to the real world they will be left with a myriad of questions echoing in their minds. Following the greatest legacy of science fiction, ‘Annihilation’ explores themes that challenge some of the basic concepts that shape our perspective of reality. This trait has frequently been minimized or completely overlooked in many of the current blockbuster movies dominating the Cineplex. The only way to obtain this goal is the synergistic complement of script, direction, cinematography, and performances each provided by master artisans on their respective crafts. This film challenges the viewer on every level never losing sight of the responsibility to entertain while introducing the audience to an incredible visual experience.

The objective of the mission is to enter the perimeter of the ‘simmer,’ and proceed to the apparent epicenter of the anomaly, a lighthouse. As the team begins to progress to that structure, they encounter animals like what is expected but with unworldly changes that are best described as mutations. As the surrounding flora and fauna mutate into decidedly extraterrestrial forms, the explorers slowly subjected to changes in their physiology and, more frighteningly. Their mental processes and innate sense of perception. Whatever changes the simmer is manifesting on the surroundings are changing them on the most basic level possible. It is difficult for a filmmaker to covey such internalized threats to the viewer while retaining the requisite sense of danger. The incredible CGI is a great help to this end, but eventually, the success must be attributed to the nuanced performances of this diverse and amazingly talented cast. The core of this group of performers which provides the strength and stability found in the juxtaposition of the leading pair, Ms. Portman, and Ms. Leigh. The dynamic energy they create set the stage for a believable story and allow the other actors to give amazing portrayals of the characters. Techniques of this caliber are crucial when the is taken in a darker and notably cerebral direction. For the audience to discern the full impact of the narrative greater attention to detail must be infused in the plot. The number of twists the storyline takes is better than seen in most films of this genre. With this said, the pitfall of developing too deeply into the many details of this finely crafted narrative tapestry. The blend of pure excitement with a story that challenges your mind is rare but achieved in this film.

Posted 06/17/2018

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