Score: 4 Stars **** (out of 4 ****)
After producing and/or writing five wholly unique (but not always great) sci-fi flicks in the space of 10 years, Alex Garland got behind the camera for the first time in 2015 and delivered “Ex Machina,” the finest first film by a director since Sam Mendes’ 1999 “American Beauty.”
Small in scale but huge in concept and execution, “Ex Machina” also marked the breakthrough of stunning Swedish actress Alicia Vikander in the title role and Garland as a visionary storyteller some (including me) rightfully compared to Stanley Kubrick.
When it was revealed that Garland’s next project would be adapting the mind-bending novel “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer it became clear that he wasn’t going to play it safe. This movie would either be a total disaster or a masterpiece and in my opinion it is definitely the latter, although most people who think Marvel or “Star Wars” movies represent the best sci-fi has to offer are going to loathe it. This might also be the position of established fans of the book as Garland strays significantly from the source material but, not to put too much of a simple spin on it, these are different mediums and what Garland crafted isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.
What’s also different is the relative lack of whiplash-inducing editing, overblown audio/visual diarrhea often associated with modern sci-fi — the long stretches of silence, minimal dialogue, and the challenging of the audience to think on their own and not to be force-fed explanations or conclusions. This is a “think piece” open to interpretation regarding meaning and intent; it will strike every viewer differently. It’s not a crowd-pleaser by any stretch but rather a challenge to one’s intellect and emotion.
Adding to the challenge and confusion factors is the wildly out of sequence narrative. It opens with Lena (Natalie Portman) looking dazed, confused, and more than a bit battered. She’s been put through the wringer but can’t quite recall any specific details. She's not sure if she’s been gone for hours, days, or months. What is clear is she’s still in mourning over the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), missing for close to a year.
Sorry to say these are all of the plot details that can be revealed here — not necessarily due to possible spoilers — but because little of what could be laid out would not make a lick of sense. This is where Garland proves that “Ex Machina” was not a fluke. Like Hitchcock, he lets you in on only what he wants you to know and like Kubrick, makes you question what you have just seen. This is not an easy movie to navigate and if you blink at the wrong time — forget it. Buy your popcorn, go to the bathroom, and turn off your cell phone before you sit down or don’t go at all.
After Garland’s triumph (more critical than commercial) with “Ex Machina” he was given a much larger budget ($55 million) for “Annihilation” — still low by modern standards — yet managed to come up with a film that looks like it cost three times as much. Other than the scenes where Lena is in recovery mode (which looks drab by design), each and every remaining frame is breathtaking. The visual quality and production design of this movie is off the charts.
Here’s a few quick, time-saving ways to determine if this movie is right for you.
You’ve never seen a Marvel or “Star Wars” movie or did and were not all that impressed.
You have seen “Apocalypse Now,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Alien” or even the original “Ghostbusters” and love or appreciate each for different reasons.
You have an I.Q. three digits or higher.
You simply want something different that doesn’t insult your intelligence but actually rewards it.
You are not a lemming or a sheep.
You have a mind of your own, however uncool that might be these days.
Welcome to the land of daring artistry. Glad to have you.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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