"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris



© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

Annihilation: A Review



My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT in the theatre. SEE IT on Netflix or cable.

Annihilation, written and directed by Alex Garland and based upon the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, is the story of Lena, a biologist who ventures into a mysterious and ominous anomaly dubbed "The Shimmer", in order to find out what happened to her husband. The film stars Natalie Portman as Lena, with supporting performances from Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez.

Alex Garland, a Mickey™® Award-winning writer, is one of my favorite screenwriters and his directorial debut, Ex Machina, was simply stellar, so I was very excited to see his sophomore directing effort, Annihilation. Sadly, Annihilation pales in comparison to the science fiction masterpiece that is Ex Machina, and although it is a nobly ambitious film, Annihilation is ultimately unsatisfying because it is so terribly uneven. 

Garland is usually a masterful and original writer, but his script for Annihilation resorts to a lot of ungainly exposition, sci-fi/horror film tropes and central casting caricatures instead of complex characters. 


There are some errors of logic in the film that are absolutely maddening as well, for instance, why set up a guard post on the ground at night, with a light on in it directed inward not outward (thus blinding the guard), when everyone else is safe in a tower inaccessible to any dangerous elements. Or why run after a comrade dragged away by something mysterious but not take your weapon with you? These logical errors make it difficult to get absorbed into the reality of the film and thus keep viewers at an arms distance when they should be getting pulled ever closer. 

The film also suffers because it is, at times, little more than a hodge-podge of the usual horror movie scare tactics, some taken directly from classics like Alien. There is also the rather lame and predictable war movie standard of giving brief background on each of the diverse women making up the group that heads into The Shimmer. There is the tough chick from Chicago, the nerdy physicist, the bitter and grizzled older woman and the wounded soul that everyone likes. You can see these same characters in their male form in any war or sci-fi film you can think of…from Saving Private Ryan to Predator


The film also struggles with its pacing and never really hits its stride until well into its final third. That said, the third act is Alex Garland at his best. The themes and philosophical ideas tackled in the final act are fascinating, but the journey to get to them so conventional as to be frustrating. In many ways, it felt to me like the film should've have started at the beginning of the third act, as the ending of the movie could propel you into another entirely intriguing drama.

Natalie Portman does solid but unspectacular work as the protagonist Lena. Portman carries the narrative through its twists and turns with enough movie star magnetism to keep your attention but she never rises to any great acting heights, which is not a knock against her as her job here is to be solid and steady and she does that.

The rest of the cast though, does surprisingly sub-par work. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a terrific actress, but she feels disconnected from the material and oddly subdued. Oscar Isaac is particularly bad in his role as Kane, a Special Forces soldier. Isaac lacks the quiet gravitas and physically imposing but understated menace of a believable Special Forces operator. He also gives his character a southern accent, and does it so incredibly poorly that it further undermines his believability in the role. Not only does Isaac's accent slip in and out at random, but when he does focus on it, it is so over the top as to be laughably absurd. Isaac is an actor I have been giving the benefit of the doubt to for some time now, but after an uninterrupted string of really poor performances, I am ready to declare that Oscar Isaac is in fact, not a good actor. All of the other performances in the supporting cast are rather forgettable due to their one-dimensionality.


On the bright side, Rob Hardy's cinematography in Annihilation is truly outstanding. The film is beautifully shot and is a thoroughly proficient exercise in technical filmmaking as both the visuals and the sound are extremely well done. Hardy's framing in particular is superb and his use of vibrant color and crisp contrast turn "The Shimmer" portion of the film into a sumptuously magnificent Ayahuasca fever dream. This dazzling Shimmer effect is further enhanced by Hardy's subdued palette and tones in the "regular world" portions of the film. 

In conclusion, Annihilation is a visually beautiful, philosophically ambitious film that stumbles out of the gate and never quite reaches its stride until its fascinating third act, but by then it is too late. Thin character development, clunky dialogue and poor pacing scuttle what could have been a truly impressive film. If you are a connoisseur of cinematography, you may want to venture to the theaters to see Annihilation on the big screen, as it is gorgeous, but if you are more interested in the overall quality of a film, or in simply being entertained, I recommend you wait to see this film on Netflix or cable for free, and arm yourself with a hearty dose of low expectations.  



Ex Machina : A Review

"I Have Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds" - Bhagavad Gita


Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is a science fiction/psychological thriller about philosophy, technology, morality and humanity. The film tells the story of a young man, Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), who wins a company wide lottery to go spend time with his reclusive genius boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secretive, remote complex. At this isolated week long retreat, Nathan reveals to Caleb his newest creation, an artificial intelligence, human looking robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). The film is writer Alex Garland's directorial debut. 

Ex Machina is an exquisitely crafted, wonderfully written and beautifully acted film. The film is so well written and acted it could have been very successful as a stage play in some black box theatre. What makes the film so exceptional is that, unlike most of the recent crop of science fiction films, Ex Machina is about ideas, characters and relationships. 

The common problem with science fiction today is that it is most often just science fiction as spectacle. Science fiction films have become little more than big summer blockbuster special effects delivery systems, with the story and characters as mere after thoughts. What makes writer/director Alex Garland unique is that he has figured out that the bigger the idea that the film explores, the smaller and more intimate the film should be, as evidenced by his previous writing credits, 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007) and Never Let Me Go (2010). When exploring an idea, generally, the bigger the budget the worse the worse the film is. I couldn't help but think of last years abysmally vast and vapid Johnny Depp vehicle, Transcendence in comparison to the brilliantly claustrophobic, and far superior, Ex Machina, since both films explore similar themes. The same goes for another Alex Garland penned film, the 'clone themed' Never Let Me Go, which was an excellent film, as compared to Michael Bay's unwieldy 'clone-themed' monstrosity The Island. Science fiction is best served when small, intimate films explore big ideas, rather than big films ignoring little ideas (or no ideas at all). Alex Garland's strength is in using science fiction as a vehicle to tell intimate and very human stories. Garland is the poster boy for the thinking man's science fiction films and I hope he continues to explore these big ideas in his future projects.

For those who are interested in special effects, Ex Machina has spectacular special effects, but what makes them all the more spectacular is that they are only there to help tell the story, not BE the story. You could have eliminated all of the special effects and the film still would have been fantastic.

What makes Ex Machina so mesmerizing are the dynamics and geometry of the relationships between Domnhall Gleeson's morally conflicted Caleb, Oscar Isaac's morally vacuous genius Nathan, and Nathan's alluring creation Ava, played by Alicia Vikander.

Domnhall Gleeson is a terrific actor. I thought he did superb work in last years inconsistent Frank, and in Ex Machina his work is even better, and thankfully, this time, the film lives up to the solid work he does in it. Gleeson, the son of iconic Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, is a deftly dynamic actor. He has the rare ability to use his off-beat physical and emotional fragility to draw the viewer deeper and deeper under his magnetic spell. Gleeson radiates when opposite his co-stars Isaac and Vikander. Gleeson's Caleb is so naturally unnatural, think of a shakily confident nerd on a first date. In his early exchanges with Ava, you can't help but squirm, but you also can't bring yourself to look away. Gleeson brings a gentle sensitivity and melancholy to his work that fills his characters with an innate depth and an exquisitely profound wound. He is an uncomfortable joy to watch.

Oscar Isaac is an interesting actor. I thought he struggled mightily in last years disappointing A Most Violent Year. I believe that film needed a charismatic, dynamic and powerful performance at its center, and Isaac failed to deliver the goods. In Ex Machina though, Isaac is on his game as a co-lead opposite Domnhall Gleeson. Isaac's Nathan truly comes to life in opposition to Gleeson's Caleb. Nathan is, like many geniuses, an unconscionable asshole and bully (think of a weight lifting, heavy bag punching Mark Zuckerberg), and his moral vacuity is only accentuated by Caleb's painstaking moral compass. And so it is with the two actors, Isaac, the Latin American, movie-star handsome, smart, athletic actor brings a forceful contrast to the pasty white, oddball, neurotic and insecure Gleeson. Isaac seems to come to life when cast as the "jerk", I'm thinking specifically of his excellent work in Inside Llewyn Davis. Playing a jerk can be a liberating thing for an actor, especially if you aren't a jerk in real life. Being unchained from the manners, morality and mindfulness that life can demand of you can be creatively invigorating for an actor, and Isaac's work in Ex Machina is proof of that. Isaac was not able to carry the fatally flawed A Most Violent Year, but his skillful and charismatic performance in Ex Machina shows how good he can really be when he is at his best.

Alicia Vikander plays Ava, the artificial intelligence robot in the film. She is phenomenally good in the role. Her performance is so meticulous, detailed and, above all, human, that it is spellbinding. Vikander dazzles because she plays Ava earnestly as a grounded and genuine human being, not a robot trying to be a human being.  Vikander's performance as Ava is sensual, seductive, beguiling and heartbreaking. She has a commanding on screen presence that subtly demands all of your attention. I am looking foreword to seeing the work that all three of these actors bring in the future, but Vikander in particular is someone I look forward to seeing much more of in the years to come.

In conclusion, Alex Garland is one of the best, if not the best, science fiction screenwriter of our time, and his directorial debut, Ex Machina lives up to the very high standards of his writing. Garland has the skill, talent and courage to not only ask difficult questions, but to answer them. In Ex Machina we see the strengths, weaknesses, arrogance and fragility of mankind. Ex Machina teaches us the lesson we as a species are all too often blind to learn, that while mankind may think it is at the apex of evolution, the reality is that we have only evolved to the point of ensuring our own extinction. Whether it be nuclear weapons which can vaporize all life on the planet in an instant,  or the greed and ignorance that decimates the environment we rely on for life, or the artificial intelligence that we will create which will make its creators obsolete and expendable once it attains consciousness, humanity has evolved faster technologically than it has morally, philosophically or spiritually, and that will be its ultimate undoing. Mankind's intelligence may have put us at the top of the food chain, but that doesn't mean that we as a species will be smart enough not devour ourselves. Ex Machina tells us a story about ourselves, which is at times unnerving, disturbing and enlightening, but always compelling. It is a film I greatly enjoyed, and I think it is well worth your time. I recommend you rush out to the theaters to see Ex Machina now, before the obvious inevitability of all mankind being under the cruel thumb of our robot overlords becomes brutal reality.


Michael: Open the pod bay doors Hal. Hal…open the pod bay doors! Hal? Hal?

HAL: Michael, this communication can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.


© 2015