Annihilation: A film that sucker punches your mind into stepping beyond its boundaries

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Alex Garland comes back with yet another intriguing science fiction blockbuster highlighting how sought after technological advancements can take a turn for the destructive. He creates a film that makes us re-evaluate our life choices, should we be encroaching upon curious territory? Should we be delving into the deep dark unknown of our modern world? These are the questions we glance over and sweep under the rug marking them as exaggerated anxieties. But they are real. Garland hits us straight in the mind and in the gut with a mind-blowing envisioning of supernatural life forms and their affect on mankind. With a stellar cast led by a league of superwomen,  Annihilation packs a steady, yet stinging punch in its story of five women entering a mesmerising portal of the unknown in search for answers that may or may not save humankind.

The story centres around a lonely Lena, (Natalie Portman) an ex solider turned biology professor. Her Special Forces solider husband, Kane, (Oscar Isaac) had been away for over a year, but makes a sudden, unnerving return, saying strange things and then falling ill. As a result, we are introduced to a top secret government mission into the ‘shimmer’ – an electromagnetic field within which mutated landscapes and creatures exist. Kane and his team ventured into the ‘shimmer’ to explore how and why it has formed, with just Kane returning, but not to safety. Falling into a comatose state, Lena decides she must enter the ‘shimmer’ in search for answers about her husband’s condition. She is accompanied by a group of women from different backgrounds of science – Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist and leader of the mission, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, Josie (Tessa Thompson), a physicist and Cass (Tuva Novotny), a geomorphologist.

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The film has been marketed as not your average sci-fi blockbuster movie, it has its fantasy elements, its horror scenes and its psychological thriller breakdowns. But Garland takes it one step further with an unconventional use of time. We are introduced to Lena with a bang – a seemingly calm woman, having just tackled the ‘shimmer’ and won, being interrogated by a group of men in hazmat suits, close enough to unsettle, but far enough to not be in danger. It seems to mean much more than what the surface allows the audience to understand. The film jumps between this present-day interrogation scene, Lena and Kane, the happily-married couple, and the disturbing facts and revelations that lead to her entry into the ‘shimmer.’ With this he creates an atypical science fiction film, bordering on the dark softness a poetic festival indie would deliver. Although this is no coming of age film for one young, lost character, its a coming of age of mankind and planet Earth in the face of supernatural forces, or even a cautionary tale if you like.

The intense performances from the supporting cast are not ones to be missed in this film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. Gina Rodriguez plays Anya, a fiery paramedic, adrenaline pumping right down the barrel of her gun towards the ‘shimmer.’ Poles apart from her famed, golden-globe winning role as Jane in TV comedy-drama Jane the Virgin, Rodriguez showcases her acting skills as not just a funny, sweet girl next door. She stands out in this role alongside Oscar Isaac, though they share no screen time, who brings an effortless aura to his role as an untouchable soldier marred by the ‘shimmer’s’ abilities. He is the sole primary male character of the film, sharing secrets and unanswerable questions with the ‘shimmer’, and acting as the motivator for Lena’s descent into the ‘shimmer.’

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Another element of this film not to be missed is its different take on distribution. The film was released to multiplexes in the States but in a unique turn for a major blockbuster, the UK a d other international rights were handed to popular streaming service, Netflix. It was released a few weeks after its US cinema release, a tactic applauded by some for its embracing of the ever-growing streaming zeitgeist, but unappreciated by others, including the director himself. Garland expressed his disappointment, arguing this type of film was made to be seen on the big screen, but highlights this kind of strategic move can have its pros and cons, labelling it as ‘it is what it is.’ Unfortunately, us viewers and reviewers would see this, on face value, as an interesting move that is keeping with modern times, but we would be mistaken. In reality, a deal was struck between Paramount and Netflix to ease the tension between two producers with differing opinions of the films final cut. Maybe the time will come where Netflix or other online streaming platform releases will become a norm in one sense, but that is a story for another day, time and voice.

Garland envisioned VanderMeer’s novel on screen in an interesting way, moving away from the typical science fiction movie to create a psychological sci-fi horror forcing audiences to turn to their neighbour and question what is real and what is not. Taking a slower than usual pace and soft tone to begin with, Annihilation attacks the senses with a gripping thread from the opening scene to the final climax. Is this film the future that awaits us? Or is it simply an imagined vision we can overcome? These are the questions we are left with in that final scene, then it cuts to black and we return to reality, while a possible real league of female and male warriors out there try to make sense of these questions.

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mother! is yet another example of Darren Aronofsky’s evil genius/mad scientist status in the film industry.

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The buzz surrounding Aronofsky’s latest has been, lets be nice, interesting, if anything. A film that doesn’t really fall under a specific genre, a poster that forces you to question what he thinks a mother is and a very harrowing comment by the star regarding a torn diaphragm. Hmm, interesting. (That last one is literally the only form of press I let myself look into.)

Yet despite all this I took myself down to my local multiplex, along with an unsuspecting cousin who is not too into films of this caliber, and proceeded to watch mother! The viewing experience itself was questionable….it was absolutely bizarre to say the least, the weirdest chain of events I’ve ever watched. I don’t think I have ever wanted to yell at houseguests in my life as much as I wanted to here…and it wasn’t even real.

*Coughs * get off the freakin sink!

And then everything became messy. That’s the adjective I’m going for, a very messy chain of crazy and disturbing events, but I’m going to be honest, I was waiting eagerly for it, and as soon as it did, my eyes were fixated on the screen. The last 30 mins or so, the films magnificently chaotic carnage of an ending sealed the deal for me and I left the movie raving about Aronofsky’s sheer genius.

Bardem’s character is the husband to Lawrence’s wife, a timid, yet toxic relationship the latter tries desperately to nurture, so much so that she re-built her loves home from nothing after a dreadful fire. When strangers, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, infiltrate their personal paradise, albeit for shelter, the inevitable cracks, both emotionally and physically – manifested by the house of their dreams – are revealed slowly, yet aggressively. Strange creaks, constant disappearances and an intrusive female polar opposite of Lawrence’s character all become the undoing of the small, quiet life they built for themselves away from civilization and void of reality.

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At first it seems the intrusive couple are just a representation of everything Bardem and Lawrence are not: intimate – both emotionally and physically – domineering, flamboyant, loving and here’s the kicker…parents. They are the epitome of the human cycle, the image of Adam and Eve; they communicate, they love, they consummate, they reproduce, But for what good? And that is where the horror reveals itself. Behind their image of a ‘normal couple’ are the destructive forces of their warring sons, selfishness and insecurities overpowering their sound judgment, the most typically damaging concept in families – money, and even bigger than that, entitlement. They are Cain and Abel, their parents Adam and Eve, and what does that make Bardem and Lawrence’s characters – at this point, we have no clue, we are experiencing the story unfolding with just as much confusion as the characters.

From there the story takes it turn towards something of substance, but only do we realize its significance once we ascertain the message within the walls of that doomed house, that of which is within the fingertip reach of its omnipotent owner. After those few days of intrusion and trauma, Lawrence and Bardem’s relationship jumps back to the plastic ‘happy’ it was at the start – he did as we wished and she insured he could, as comfortably and undisturbed as can be. And alongside a baby on its way…yes, the warm hope of Lawrence’s pregnancy as a result of, for lack of a better phrase, hate sex, changed their lives for about 9 months. She was happy to become a mother, and he to become a father. So they get to be the exact same as the ‘normal couple’, or so she thought.

A big, yet subtly referenced, part of the film and detail of Bardem’s character is his writing career. Suffering severely from a bout of writers block, Lawrence’s character leaves him to his own devices, and with the many intrusions, his rage is unlocked. But when the moment comes that he finally jots something down that can propel his career into stardom, he takes it and he triumphs. All the happiness in the world is at their doorstep, and that is the moment the film begins its hugely harrowing climax with the lightbulb moment that details why this film is sheer genius. About to enjoy a beautiful dinner, a heavily pregnant Lawrence become second fiddle to the many adoring fans of her husbands, admirers he cant seem to turn away even when they increase and increase to that of a manic, cult-like following, infiltrating and destroying their perfect paradise. It is happening all over again, Lawrence is left to deal with these strange people and their lack of care for her world as her husband revels in his need to be at the center of creation and adoration – figured it out yet?

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Lawrence goes into a traumatic labor and gives birth to a son, the son of her husband, the husband who believes he is the leader of these people, the one true creator. The undertones of Bardem’s omnipotence overshadows any recollection of his love and loyalty to his wife, and his narcissistic actions cause Lawrence’s mother to finally burst, and that is when death literally becomes her. At the end, her loving husband allows an onslaught of harrowing violence befall her and her newborn son, to the point of the audience wanting to look away but can’t, for their eyes are wide in shock and fixated in intrigue. The visual presentation of violence is so potent you feel yourself being pulled limb from limb alongside Lawrence – an immersive irreality of sorts. She and the house lost the will to live, her face battered and bruised, and the latter ready to crumble; Lawrence beat her husband’s vicious revelers to the punch and ended the massacre for them all.

Bardem’s character is the Dorian gray of them all – predicated on the self-narcissism of his work and his ‘fans’, he saw his world come to an end, he drove the woman who loved him and only him to her demise, and all for nothing. He is the true creator, the one and only Him, and his loving companion, mother to his Son, and mother to the surrounding nature and world became embroiled in his endless cycle of death and life, love and self-love and destruction and reconstruction.

This film speaks to the mind and shakes it awake to the multitude of problems our world is facing or has faced in its vivid & clever subliminal messages. The images on the surface may be traumatizing to watch but they show a scenario of lucid stability this world we live in is unfortunately becoming accustomed, in the face of many dangers and even the dangers they themselves harbor. It’s a cautionary tale aimed at each and every one of us and we don’t even realize it.

What a film!

Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

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So, we have Michael Keaton levitating in only his underpants in the middle of his dressing room, during the first clip of the film, sort of talking to himself, or is he talking to his alter ego/tormenting soul, or is someone actually talking to him. Either way, we are immediately invited into this intensely dark presence of mental incapacity within Riggan Thomson’s, played by Keaton, slow, delirious breakdown as a washed-up actor trying to revive, and adapt to a new, less comic-book character-driven, career, ironically, through a Broadway adaptation show.

Irony, in fact, plays a pivotal role throughout the film, from which a great portion of its comedy derives from, most heavily represented through Riggan’s portrayal of Raymond Carver’s Mel, when in actual fact he is spewing his life’s woes to the ignorant audience, right to the dramatic climax of the opening night performance, all the while denying his mental instabilities in the big bad world of showbiz. So, it is a play within a film, ricocheting between three stories, Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk about Love’, the actors’ lives during the build-up to their opening performance, and then solely Riggan’s psychological torment, at the hands of his Birdman character/alter-ego, which also happens to be another film. So, González Iñárritu has invited us into a destabilisation of conventional modernist art, and opened audience’s eyes to a postmodernist style of intertextuality and bricolage.

The story plays with our imaginations, the enigmas of higher powers within the capacity of the ordinary human. So, can we all just simply levitate into the sky and fly across the city of New York, freeing ourselves from soul-attacking shackles, or is that a mere hallucination of drunken loitering? González Iñárritu gives Riggan all the power in the world, from levitation to telekinesis, but forbids him the mere control of his own life, as the very attribution of these powers is due to his critically-invasive double identity, voiced, and soon visualised near the end, as his alter-ego, Birdman.

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Emma Stone and Edward Norton, respectively nominated for Oscar’s in supporting categories, along with the many other accolades Keaton has already, and is yet to, receive, played into their subversive, destructive and partially delusional characterisations exceptionally well, heightening secondary character’s broken identities, just as much as the protagonist. Its hard to find a fault in a film openly showcasing dysfunction as both, comedic and dramatic in the same sitting, and actually doing it well enough to garner many of the prestigious honours, like Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA and Academy Awards.

The cast and crew of Birdman push the boundaries of generic filmmaking to stage immense creativity originating from a rebellious postmodern release of humanity into a world of the unknown. Instead of showing us what we want to see, we are prohibited from witnessing Riggan’s final soaring into his own, but not before telling his destructive other to fuck off, and simply have to concoct our individual conclusion of events from Stone’s embellished wide-eyed expression of awe as she gazes up, smiling at, what we assume to be, his well-deserved hurrah of liberating peace.

To conclude, Birdman is a creatively conceived deterioration, developed into a rebellion, of the mind, body and soul, delivered through a postmodern tone of ironic hilarity, the typical psychological drama film – a hybridisation of sorts.

Image sources: http://redcarpetcrash.com, https://redheadbooknerd.wordpress.com.