Movie Review: ‘Annihilation’ is Sci-Fi Gold and ‘Game Night’ Surprises

Annihilation


Adapted from the best-selling novel by Jeff Vandermeer, Alex Garland’s strange and nightmarish science fiction film is unlike anything you’ve seen before. The writer/director has become one of the most fascinating and original voices working in the genre today, following his debut feature, “Ex-Machina”, and several notable screenplays such as “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine”. He’s a man of ideas; one who enjoys subverting aspects of the genre just as much as playing into them.

“Annihilation” certainly strives to be the kind of dense thought-provoking science fiction picture that someone like Andrei Tarkovsky would have created but also it also isn’t afraid to shock its audience with mutated monsters or beastly body-horror.

The film stars Natalie Portman as a biologist embarking on a survey mission to a patch of Florida swamp overcome by a mysterious phenomenon known as “the shimmer”. Portman’s husband in the film, played by Oscar Isaac, the sole survivor from a previous mission, now seems on the verge of death as a result of his experiences. Joining the mission is a collection of various scientists (Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny), each hoping to better understand what lies within the unusual ecosystem.

As the journey moves further and further into the deep depths of the swamp, the laws of nature begin to slowly unravel. Mutations occur at a cellular level, creating monstrous creatures and a slow deterioration of the women themselves. The movie’s less concerned with explanations of why as opposed to dreamlike atmosphere and visuals. In the end, “Annihilation” is about metamorphosis and the creation of something new through one’s own self-destruction.

This isn’t a commercially friendly blockbuster and there are those who will no doubt be turned off by its heady themes and bizarre narrative. Yet, for those willing to slip into the film’s eerie trance, the results are captivating. Even when the Annihilation trips in a couple of places, you’re always amazed by the sheer ambition on display.

RATING:  ★ ★ 1/2

Mute

If only the same could be said for Dunkan Jones’ “Mute”, another eagerly awaited sci-fi project which premieres on Netflix. Jones, demonstrated himself as a talent to watch with his first two features; 2009’s “Moon” and 2011’s “Source Code”. Those led to an unsuccessful attempt to bring the video-game “World of Warcraft” to life and many who followed his career hoped a return to small-scale sci-fi could turn things around. However, “Mute” proves to be just as much of a clunker; one that’s all the more disappointing considering Jones has reportedly been trying to get it made for some time.

The film follows a mute, Amish bartender (Alexander Skarsgard) searching for his missing girlfriend through the cyberpunk neon of futuristic Berlin. Curiously enough, “Mute” is the second Netflix property, in the last month to copy and paste its visuals from the world of “Blade Runner”. In a side plot, we get Paul Rudd, looking almost identical to Elliot Gould in “M*A*S*H”, as a surgeon operating within the city’s criminal underworld. He and his partner (Justin Theroux) have a good business going but Rudd’s just looking to get out and start a new life with his daughter.

The two story-lines eventually weave together but, at that point, you don’t care. While the film’s plot is overstretched and underdeveloped, it’s the characters who really sink the movie. Skarsgard’s Leo is nothing more than a blank slate and the actor’s  inability to convey the characters thoughts through body language further limits our ability to care about his journey. Compare this with Sally Hawkins’ work as a mute lead in “The Shape of Water” and the differences are astonishing. Even Rudd, who is largely the best thing in the movie, plays such a despicable character that it becomes hard eventually to even care what happens to him or his daughter.

RATING: ★ 1/2

Game Night

  

Also opening this weekend is the Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams comedy “Game Night”. If you were judging from the advertising alone, you might think “Game Night” was another throwaway studio comedy tossed in at the early part of the year. Then there’s the title card stating it’s from the same directors as “Horrible Bosses”; another possible red flag. However, much to one’s surprise, the movie is actually one of the better studio comedies in the last couple years.

The plot focuses on a group of friends who meet up for a weekly game night hosted by Bateman and McAdams’ characters; Max and Annie. However, things take a turn when Max’s brother (Kyle Chandler) rides back into town and uninterested in playing simple games of charades. Instead, he proposes an elaborate role-playing game; one that will involve someone being kidnapped and the rest attempting to track the victim down with a helpful set of clues. Of course, things become complicated when Max’s brother becomes the hostage in an actual kidnapping, leading the group on a wild chase where the line between game and reality is not always clear. Like “Annihilation”, it’s a movie where the less you know the better, making it hard to describe without giving away it’s best gags and twists.

“Game Night” proves to be far better written and expertly directed than most studio comedies. It doesn’t feel like a movie where its actors were given free reign to improvise on set with the notion that the funniest bits would simply be found in the editing room. There’s actually a smart script here, one with sets crumbs for hilarious moments throughout the plot, patiently paying them off when you least expect it. There’s also a fair amount of visual gags. A large flaw of many major comedies is thinking only the actors can bring out humor but many of “Game Night’s” funniest moments come from the filmmaking itself.

RATING:  ★