Review Round-Up: February 23


Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)

Ex Machina (2014) director Alex Garland takes on the first book in Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy of novels. Of the two books I read in the series, Annihilation was the good one: mysterious and evocative, it is a fantastic example of the way SF-horror can re-figure a trip into the recesses of the human psyche into a trip into the unknown. It also happens to be highly and recognizably derivative: the overall concept (that there is a strange area of obscure origin in Florida that nature has reclaimed and in which it is now running amok) is a secularized version of Andrei Tarkovsky’s SF-as-religious-allegory classic Stalker (1979); and the rest of the story smacks strongly of H.P. Lovecraft’s interest in the abject, the indescribably monstrous—except with complex characters who aren’t white men terrified of difference. The quality of Vandermeer’s book comes from how naturally he melds these two seemingly quite different takes on SF, uniting Tarkovsky’s sublime and Lovecraft’s abject in a thrilling, yet obscure, suspense story.

Anyway, enough about that book: now there’s a movie based on it. A.A. Dowd, lead critic at the AV Club, finds the film likewise “derivative,” picking up in particular the similarities between  the story and Tarkovsky’s SF. Nevertheless, he gives the film a strong-ish B, writing,  

The film wages war on the nerves across multiple fronts, creating a state of regular disorientation through its scrambled visual grammar (like the mismatched eyelines during Lena’s bewildered first scene at the compound) and the distant remove of most of the performances, Portman’s included. As a pure creature feature, it has individual images and moments straight out of a wake-in-fright nightmare. 

The impression I get from Dowd, who’s quite skeptical of Alex Garland’s ability to deliver a fully satisfying story (see: Garland-scripted Sunshine (2007), a film I greatly admire despite its flaws but that Dowd singles out for shade-throwing here), is that Annihilation is much better than the average big-budget SF flick, but not by any disinterested standard a particularly good film.

Emily Yoshida at Vulture views the film a little more charitably. She laments that, in an era when the cinematic image is so pliable, the mind-altering implications of Garland’s imagery will not be as iconic or impactful as earlier films that propelled the viewer into warped, otherworldly places. Nevertheless, she writes, Garland’s trippy images bring the viewer (along with Natalie Portman’s main character) to a deeply personal and emotional place. 

Even more appreciative is Tasha Robinson at The Verge, who sees Annihilation as the best SF film since Arrival (2016). The film defies “spoiler culture,” she writes, revealing its ending right off the bat in order to focus us on the emotional content of the story.

But it’s a mark of success for the film that even knowing the outcome doesn’t disperse the tension. 'Annihilation' is a portentous movie, and a cerebral one. It’s gorgeous and immersive, but distancing. It’s exciting more in its sheer ambition and its distinctiveness than in its actual action. And by giving away so many details about the ending up front, writer-director Alex Garland ('Ex Machina') seems to be emphasizing that 'Annihilation' isn’t about who-will-live dynamics, or the fast mechanics of action scenes. It’s about the slow, subdued journey Lena and the others take into the unknown, and how it affects them emotionally.

It’s my impression that few “genre films”—even or especially the ones that I would consider the true greats—get unanimously sterling reviews upon release. The mixture of opinion and the hesitancy of the praise for Annihilation actually gives me hope that what we may have on our hands is a truly original sci-fi film, one that, like the book it’s based on, does not allow itself to be hemmed in by its (quite overt) influences.


Mute (dir. Duncan Jones)

Speaking of derivative Sci-Fi, Duncan Jones has returned to the genre after his brief flirtation with big-budget fantasy in Warcraft (2016). It’s a welcome return—Jones’s Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011) are among the best SF films of the past decade. Mute, now on Netflix as part of their barrage of SF/cyberpunk, is a passion project he’s been planning since before Moon was released, but reviews are not particularly auspicious:

Viewers likely won’t complain too much about the film’s look (although its design failures will register subconsciously), but they will notice that there’s almost no real sense of danger in this world, and so the stakes don’t seem high enough to care about what happens to anyone. The biggest problem comes down to pacing. The movie takes too long to go anywhere, and so it’s the kind of movie that you get an hour into before you realize that you don’t care about what’s happening. 

I’m not sure I agree with Brian Tallerico here about filmgoers’ indifference to the design of a film; isn’t one of the reasons people love Black Panther so much the design of the world and the characters? This offhand comment seems a bit condescending to me. 

Tellerico and other critics are sure to note the film’s rather obvious debt to Blade Runner and other ‘80s pop-cultural touchstones, which the film wears on its sleeve. Eric Kohn at Indiewire points out the perhaps excessive influence of M*A*S*H on Mute’s character dynamics, along with plot elements taken from, of all things, Witness (1985).

All things considered, Jones juggles these ingredients well enough in individual moments, but they can’t overcome some of the clumsier bits in the script (“I’m AWOL, you’re a-hole”), or a third act reveal that doesn’t quite hold together. Tonally, the movie suffers from a disconnect between earnest storytelling and broad caricatures. 

David Bramesco gets a bit too personal in his take-down of Mute at The Guardian, I feel, pinning Jones’s apparent artistic decline on his wife’s cancer and the death of his father, David Bowie—all while, in the very first paragraph, comparing Jones to George Lucas. That’s quite an interpretive leap, not to mention a hurtful observation, if you ask me. Reviews across the board are pretty abysmal, so here’s an almost-dissenting voice, that of Film School Rejects’ Rob Hunter:

… even with the stumbles 'Mute' manages to capture and hold your attention thanks in part to its visual style and tone. World-building is an often underrated aspect of science fiction films as too many of them focus on imagery that screams “sci-fi” while never truly meshing together as part of the world. The Holy Grail in this regard is Ridley Scott’s 'Blade Runner' … Numerous films have tried to ape the original’s style, but while 'Mute' appears to lack Scott’s budget it succeeds better than most in dropping both characters and audiences into a believable and fully-functioning world.

Hunter’s estimation of the film’s world-building efficacy, however, flies directly in the face of the consensus. Either he’s a more observant director, or he’s a bit too caught up in the hope that Duncan Jones will deliver another classic SF film.


Game Night (dir. John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein)

It seems to me that Jason Bateman is in at least one of these low-budget, R-rated comedies every off-season. If it’s February, March, September, or October, you can be sure you’re getting Jason Bateman as a nondescript American male getting in over his head in some kind of heinous situation.

But is Game Night actually good? Matt Zoller Seitz thinks so. Giving the film 3.5 stars (out of 4), he suggests that the comedy actually has a story rooted in its characters’ interrelationships and psychology and anchored by solid performances from the leads.

The actors put it all across with flair—especially Bateman and McAdams, who complete each other's thoughts so deftly that they really do seem as if they've been married forever, and Plemons, who steals every scene he's in through deft underplaying. And while there are a few touching moments, the film never tries to claim sentimental or revelatory power it hasn't earned.

NPR’s Glen Weldon is also surprised by Game Night’s relative quality, something that he did not find suggested by either its outline or its trailers. Surprisingly enough, he sees Bateman as one of the central appeals of the film:

Bateman's familiar presence unlocks the film in an interesting way; it seems to become an extension of his publicly perceived sensibility. 'Game Night' trades on the comedy of ironic restraint, of de-escalation, of mundane conversations taking place against wildly violent, criminal, life-or-death backdrops. The pop-culture references, which are many, don't seem the product of some last-minute, punch-up-by-committee scripting session, they grow directly out of these characters' overdeveloped trivia acumen.

A stub review in the New York Times by Glenn Kenny concurs with these positive takes on the film, singling McAdams in particular out for praise. 

Not quite on board is Richard Brody at The New Yorker, one of the smartest critics working. He agrees that the film puts more emphasis than the average comedy on distilling characters into comedic action, but he calls the film “compulsively watchable yet empty,” which barely qualifies as slight praise. 

The movie is distinctive for its sense of forethought and composition; it’s an utterly insubstantial experience but a complex wind-up toy of a movie that, in its nested iterations of reality and deception in the kidnapping plot, and in the multiple fields of action that are juggled and interwoven to realize it, feels like a throwback to the showily crafted entertainments of classic Hollywood, voided of their substance and symbols.

Ouch. Brody’s waiting for something new to emerge in the wake of the decline of the Judd Apatow-style improv-flick. Game Night is a departure, but it’s not the new direction, his review suggests.