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Posts Tagged ‘Alex Garland’

Musings on The Death of Cinema, Part Two: you know, the fact that You Were Never Really Here is (famously) only showing at four Odeons in the UK neither surprises nor concerns me, particularly – both the film and its director have art-house critical darling written all over them. What it says about our culture, that we are so ready to accept that such a superbly talented artist is essentially only of interest to a niche audience, is another matter and probably too substantial to be resolved on a humorous film review blog.

What is, perhaps, slightly more worrying are signs of a tendency for films to bypass cinemas entirely and get their first introduction to the world via the bold new frontier of streaming sites. We are here – and I find myself obliged to abandon my usual principled circumlocution and refer to the site by name – in the world of the Netflix Original. Now, some of Netflix’s own films are cheap-ass potboilers, and even when they do spend a lot of money the results are not always impressive (Bright, for instance, apparently had a budget of $90 million). But this is to some extent a whole new ball game, for – unlike a traditional studio – Netflix is not concerned with individual ticket sales, and they seem more prepared to take risks.

Which brings us to the strange case of Paramount Pictures, Netflix, and Alex Garland’s Annihilation. The story goes as follows: Paramount agreed to back Annihilation, an SF-horror movie based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, to be directed by Garland (also responsible for the well-received but – if you ask me – slightly overrated Ex Machina). $55 million was spent; the movie was made, and previewed to some punters. The punters had issues with it, and Paramount demanded changes. The film-makers refused (I suppose there’s another discussion to be had about the pernicious influence of preview screenings on films: I think it was Mark Kermode who said that if they’d preview-screened Casablanca, no-one today would remember it at all).

At this point Netflix swooped in and a deal was struck: Paramount would distribute the movie in cinemas in the US and China, but as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Annihilation would effectively be a Netflix Original, despite having been made with that big-screen experience in mind.

Certainly I would imagine seeing Annihilation on the big screen would be a memorable experience, for this is a visually lavish movie, if nothing else. Natalie Portman plays Lena, an ex-soldier-turned-biology-professor (go with it) who as the story starts is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaacs) on a classified mission some time earlier.

But then Kane returns, apparently from the dead, seemingly a changed man, unable to say much about his experiences, and rapidly falling extremely ill. The armed forces descend and both Lena and Kane are taken into custody, under the oversight of Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The truth is explained to Lena: an uninhabited region of swampland on the southern coast of the USA is now host to ‘the shimmer’, a mysterious, rapidly expanding zone which appears to defy the normal laws of physics. Numerous teams of soldiers have been sent into the zone to try and find the source of the phenomenon; Kane is the only one to return.

Lena joins another mission heading into the zone, a primarily scientific one led by Ventress herself. But the zone is a realm of mutation and chaos, where the laws of nature seem to be breaking down – can the team members even preserve their sanity, let alone their lives?

Annihilation is clearly the work of the same sensibility as Ex Machina: it takes some classic, maybe even well-worn SF tropes, and handles them in a stylish, cerebral way. Garland’s familiarity with classic science fiction has been clear ever since his script for 28 Days Later, which is in many ways loosely adapted from The Day of the Triffids; he also wrote the screenplay for the 2012 Judge Dredd movie. While Annihilation is ostensibly based on VanderMeer’s novel, suggestions that the movie draws on a range of other sources seem to me to be on the money.

It seems to me that Gareth Edwards’ Monsters has had some influence on the film, with its scenes of weirdly-hybridised ecosystems and urban desolation; you can also, perhaps, discern a more distant inheritance from the likes of The Thing. The film certainly sits comfortably within a wave of modern SF films which are visually striking but somewhat obscure in their storytelling – here I’m thinking of movies like Under the Skin, Midnight Special, and The Signal.

A number of people have said that Annihilation has at least as much in common with H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space as it does with VanderMeer’s book, and this strikes me as a very good call. The short story in question concerns the fall to Earth of a strange meteorite, and the insidious and gradual effects it has on the ecology of the surrounding area, to say nothing of the inhabitants. In addition to having very similar premises, both stories have the same queasy feeling of wrongness, of a world being twisted out of shape.

That said, while Annihilation does feature some interesting viscera, it is hardly visceral – as with Ex Machina, it is altogether too cool and measured for genuinely powerful emotions to manifest themselves. There’s no real feeling of tension of threat; even though the team are very likely heading into the zone on a suicide mission (no-one else has returned), there is no apprehension or foreboding involved.

(I suppose I should comment on the fact that the exploration team is made up entirely of women, although this is one of the elements inherited from the novel rather than an innovation of Garland’s. Does it feel like the movie is trying to make a slightly ostentatious and contrived pitch to a certain type of progressive audience? Well, maybe; for me it may just be that it feels a bit odd that the members of a science team are all packing assault rifles, as if this is necessary in order to make it clear that they are strong and independent women – I find the ass-kicking warrior woman to be as tedious a stereotype as her male counterpart. I suspect the film would feel quite different with differently-gendered characters; there is a lot to unpack here. I must further note that despite the predominantly female cast, the film has still been criticised on the grounds that Portman’s character should be Asian, and Leigh’s should be partly Native American, which if nothing else is a reminder that there is no-one more relentlessly uncompromising than the virtuous.)

Apart from its spectacular visuals, Annihilation‘s main virtue is its icy weirdness, for it never quite gets you where you live, and there’s not enough going on for it to qualify as an action-horror either. It is a film of ideas, and most of those ideas are fairly rarefied ones, about the nature of identity and what it means when this starts to disintegrate. Opinion, I suspect, will be divided by this film, especially by the closing section, which will either be a bravura exploration of complex themes or a borderline-absurd piece of pretentious artiness, depending on your point of view.

Has the cinema-going world beyond the US and China been deprived of a treat, given that Annihilation is only available over the internet? Um, well, maybe: certainly this film is frequently stunning to look at, and that would only be emphasised on the big screen. Worse films than this one will certainly get a major cinema release this year. But then it’s not really an issue of quality, is it, but rather one of how commercial a movie should be. Annihilation is somewhere on the outer limits of mainstream genre cinema, and I think it might have struggled to find an audience if it had received a conventional release.

I suppose in the end it is just the nature of cinema as a commercial undertaking: films are defined as successes or failures by their box-office take at least as much as by their creative achievement; studios don’t produce films to support the arts, they do so to make a profit. I suppose it is preferable to have the film-makers’ cut of Annihilation available to a wide audience by whatever means, than for it to be loitering on a shelf somewhere, or slipped out direct-to-DTV as a famous flop, or savagely recut to turn it into something more comfortingly conventional. I don’t think Annihilation is a truly great film, but it is well-made, full of ideas, reasonably well-performed, and has a very strong sense of what it wants to be; we need more films like this, and less designed-by-committee lowest-common-denominator movie-making. The fact that Annihilation hasn’t got a cinema release is a bit of a shame; if it came to be the case that films as quirky and unusual as this could only get an internet release – well, that would be very bad news indeed.

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When you’ve written one inarguably brilliant novel (I refer to The Beach) and had a hand in making one of the most influential movies of the last 15 years (that would be 28 Days Later), I think you’ve earned the right to have anything else you produce treated with at least a modicum of interest and anticipation. So it was that I and a few friends found ourselves trotting off to see Ex Machina, a new SF movie written and directed by Alex Garland (also responsible for… well, see the start of the paragraph).

ex machina

Arriving at the cinema I found myself treated to a surprise cameo, not in the film itself but in the theatre, for who should be sitting across the aisle to us but my very slight acquaintance and one-time commenter on this blog, Mr Peter Hitchens (the writer, Mail on Sunday columnist, Right Wing thinker, and compiler of amusing indices). I know some people are surprised by my regard and fondness for Mr H, given our politics are – to put it mildly – somewhat divergent, but I have great respect for his intellect and integrity. Plus, anyone whom David Cameron thinks is ‘a maniac’ must be doing something right.

Trying not to let Mr H’s presence distract me too much, I settled down to watch the film. It concerns Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young employee of a major corporation who wins the staff lottery, for which the prize is to visit the head of the company at his remote, futuristic compound. Said boss is Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), and – having compelled Caleb to sign a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement – he reveals what he’s been working on.

Not only has Nathan seemingly solved the numerous problems of designing convincingly humanoid robots, he has also cracked the knotty issue of strong AI – probably. The thing is, he can’t be sure whether his creation is genuinely sentient or not, and to this end wants Caleb to interact with the construct and see if he is convinced of her sentience. For, yes, it is a she: the android (or should that be gynoid? Hmmm) is named Ava and played by Alicia Vikander (Ava looks rather like Robocop’s half-finished little sister).

Suffice to say that Caleb finds himself much taken with Ava, and increasingly sympathetic to her plight as – apparently – nothing but a very complex toy in the hands of the increasingly sinister and objectionable Nathan. But can he really trust either of them? And is everything going on quite what it seems to be?

One of the things propelling me to see Ex Machina was the glowing reviews it received from other acquaintances, and the first thing I have to say is that this is absolutely not a bad film. Though it clearly shows the influences of a number of other prominent SF films (others have suggested it is similar to both Westworld and I, Robot), it wears these quite lightly, and while it some degree resembles the ‘cerebral’ type of SF movie most frequently made between 1968 and 1977, the narrative is never cumbersome or especially difficult to follow. (Perhaps just as well, given I was uncomfortably aware of buzzes and flashes coming from the smartphone of one of Britain’s most prominent Right Wing commentators at several points during the film.)

As I’m sure many people are sick of being reminded, artificial intelligence is one of the few serious subjects on which I feel qualified to offer an opinion, having written a dissertation on it, and as a serious examination of the topic I think Ex Machina is only a qualified success at best. Garland has clearly done his research on the topic, with name-checks for thought-experiments like the black-and-white room and talk of the importance of invested semantics and so on, so it certainly sounds competent. On the other hand, many references are made to the Turing test, with Caleb’s encounters with Ava described as being an extended version of one – but I’m afraid this seemed to me to be so methodologically unsound I was instantly sceptical (his knowing she is a machine all along essentially invalidates the test per se, to say nothing of the Turing test being somewhat discredited as genuine assessment of AI anyway). As it turns out, the fact that this isn’t a ‘proper’ Turing test turns out to be central to the plot, with Nathan fully aware of its shortcomings – but it doesn’t explain why Caleb isn’t more dubious of what he’s participating in. Oh well: to err is human (which does seem to be one of the film’s themes).

In any case, the film is clearly intended to function as a fable rather than a naturalistic drama, although quite what it’s about is not entirely clear. There is a time-honoured tradition of any story about AI or robotics concluding with what Isaac Asimov used to refer to as the clank-clank-aaargh stage, but it would obviously be spoiling the story for me to reveal if Ex Machina also goes in this direction. For most of its duration it seems to be addressing many of the issues involved in the development of strong AI only in passing – if we did build a sentient machine, what moral right would we have to effectively hold it in slavery? – and it seemed to me that the film was rather more concerned not with human-machine relations but how people treat each other, and specifically the way in which men objectify women. It’s not by chance that Nathan’s AI has female form. It’s an interesting approach to the issue, but again what the film is trying to say beyond the obvious is unclear (and if Alex Garland really is serious about criticising male objectification of women, making a film in which every major female character has a full-frontal nude scene is a slightly odd way of doing so).

Nevertheless, Garland’s direction is assured and the film looks very impressive throughout: the visuals have a pristine coolness that matches the measured tone of proceeding. Every shot feels like it has been very carefully worked out and made as immaculate as possible. The problem with this, however, is that the visuals sometimes dominate and render the story itself somewhat inscrutable. This is problematic when what the film is trying to say is open to several interpretations, most of which are mutually exclusive. Is it suggesting that machine intelligence will essentially prove to be cold and unknowable, something inherently alien and perhaps hostile? Or is it trying to indicate quite the opposite, that our machine creations will only be flawed and dangerous inasmuch as they resemble us so closely? It’s not that the film is deliberately ambiguous on this, but more that it doesn’t really suggest it has any real position at all.

At the risk of stealing the Mail on Sunday’s thunder (and there are some words I never thought I’d type), I can reveal that Mr Hitchens found the film to be generally enjoyable, although he thought it descended into absurdity in the last five minutes. Well, I had less of a problem with that than he did, and I was pleasantly surprised, during our brief chat, to discover his familiarity with 70s SF touchstones – I had to remind myself he really doesn’t know me and restrain my indignation at the suggestion I might not have seen Westworld myself (Mr H, should you be reading, the link to the review is up the page). (Despite his good-natured grumbling about being asked for instant film criticism, I thought he had a decent crack at it.)

On the whole I thought this was a superior SF movie and a very impressive debut from Garland. This may not be the only low-budget, highbrow genre movie we see this year starring Isaacs and Gleeson (NB: irony is present), but it may well prove the most interesting. Still, it’s not perfect – it bears a certain resemblance to an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, just one slightly less impressive than most. If that sounds like damnation by faint praise, it really isn’t meant to: this is a good film, just not quite a great one.

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