Annihilation (2018): A Haunting Exploration of Inner Fears

  If you are new to the blog, I am a huge fan of sci. fi. Most of the films and shows I review are science fiction based and more often than not, they make my Top 5 of whatever year they were made if they are great. “Annihilation” never reaches the heights that the premise creates, but it is a solidly good film. I rented it from Amazon and it is worth checking out.

The film was directed and wrote Eric Garland, who was the writer and director behind one of my favorite films “Ex Machina.” It is based off a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, which I plan on checking out.

The story follows Lena, a biologist who is brought in on a special mission when her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns back changed and goes into a coma. From here she works with the team to try and solve the mystery of “The Shimmer,” a reality warping anomaly that is expanding slowly upon the Earth.

The Mystery – The core mystery is what drives the story, and what kept me most involved. The characters were interesting enough that I cared about what happened to them a little (though we never got to know them fully outside of Lena). And, I love that it starts out with a mystery; someone coming home different with no memories of who they were before. “The Shimmer” is a fascinating concept and I love how everytime you feel you learn something else about it, it reveals a greater mystery. The core premise of solving “The Shimmer” kept me in the story the entire time.

The Idea of the Team – The team is made up of women, and they are awesome! We have Lena, the biologist, holding her secrets. The cruel and distant Dr. Ventress, as the leader. The empathetic Josie, the kindness of Cassie, and the hard driven Anya. Each character carries a darkness that “The Shimmer” brings out.

The Darkness We Carry – Each of our characters carries a darkness with them. There is the fact that Lena cheated on her husband, Anya cuts herself, and Ventress has become detached and uncaring. The darkness consumes each of the characters in different way the deeper they get into the “Shimmer.”

Metaphorical and Actual Cancer – The film is also a metaphor for cancer. Everything in “The Shimmer” warps and grows. Like cancer it consumes until there is nothing left. “The Shimmer” is defeated after the alien inside of it is set on fire by Lena. As it burns, the entire “Shimmer” down to its core continues to desire to spread.

Okay:

Lena – Lena is okay. I like how she is complex as a character, but Natalie Portman’s performance doesn’t bring to the next level. I didn’t care enough about any of these characters the way I cared about the protagonists in “Ex Machina.” Here there is a level of detachment from the events going on, and a good portion of that is Lena’s own detachment from the situations she is in. She still did okay, but I can’t put her as a pro, though she was the most compelling member of the team.

The Cons:

The Ending – In the end we find out Kane, who came back as a doppelganger, is the alien life form (from “The Shimmer”.) The twist is that Lena is now a doppelganger too, even though she defeated it in the end. This contradiction took away from the entire film’s theme of overcoming darkness and healing. It kept the film from being great. The film really should have ended with her being interviewed, and Kane’s mystery never being answered. .

If you are fan of sci-fi, like me, chances are you will enjoy this film. This is a flawed and beautiful film that aspires to achieve so much, but because the characters are never quite fleshed out enough, never gets there. The ending also was a bit of a cop out and cancels out so much of what Lena went through. Even with a flawed ending, it is still worth checking out. I rented it, and it is a film that I’d say isn’t worth buying, but was worth the rent.

Final Score: 8 / 10

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The Twilight Zone – Season 3, Episode 24 – “To Serve Man” – A Critique of Colonialism and Idealism

to-serve-man-the-twilight-zone

   We continue “Horror Month” with The Twilight Zone’s, “To Serve Man.” This is a fantastic and powerful episode on the show and so far is the best episode I’ve watched from this series. It has many layers and a depth that I’ll get into further into the review.

    The story was written by Rod Serling and directed by Richard L. Bare.

      The story involves a man being transported on an alien ship as he recounts how he got there when the Kanamits arrived to bring peace to Earth.

The Pros: The Premise – The premise of aliens arriving and bringing peace, with a catch is a fascinating one and one that the show does really well.

The World – The world is really cool as they showed a time during war that the Kanamits were able to take advantage of, so the prosperity and technology they brought would obviously make people sated or want to visit where these strange saviors come from. The Kanamits look humanesque but are just alien enough to for their motivations to remain hidden.

The Reveal – The reveal is that the book the Kanamit leaves behind called “To Serve Man” is actually a cookbook and that they wanted to bring peace to the world in order to breed them as livestock.

Empire and Colonization – The Kanamit’s conquest is powerful and one that makes sense too in regards to history. How many Empires were able to hold power was by bringing “civilization” to other people and than using that as cover to exploit the populace, whether it was for soldiers, taxes, slaves, etc. This episode just shows one of those forms of conquest down to it’s base form.

Comfort and Resistance – When humanity was happy they stopped resisting. In a way the episode reminds us not to ever be satisfied that it is in striving and struggle that we are aware, which fits in regards to evolution and animal survival.

The Cons: Character Development – This is a problem in most episodes of “The Twilight Zone” as the writers at the end of the day are more focused on exploring concepts rather than characters. There are a few exceptions but I didn’t care about the code breaker or his girlfriend because we don’t see them do anything beyond reacting to what the Kanamits do. They don’t have a motivation beyond being props to serve the story.

   Minus the human characters this is actually a great episode and is very High Concept Science Fiction as it explores deeper ideas in a simple premise of aliens coming in peace but really having another agenda. If you are a fan of sci. fi., especially of the classic variety, check this episode out.

Final Score: 9 / 10

“Stranger Things” Season 1 – A Powerful Sci. Fi. Coming of Age Story Reminiscent of the Best of the 80’s Sci. Fi. Films

Stranger Things Poster

   “Stranger Things” is a show born out of love and appreciation for so many great films during the 80’s. You can see elements of Stephen King, “John Carpenter’s The Thing,” “E.T.” “Goonies” and countless others that were clearly inspiration for a show that in the end isn’t any of them and clearly stands on it’s own as a drama and show. Non-spoiler thoughts, if you like any of the things I listed above you should watch this show. Netflix has once again created gold and if you are looking for a timeless and classic story, this is the show for you.

Their will be some SPOILERS coming up.

     The series was created by the Duffer Brothers for Netflix and produced by Shawn Levy.

     The story involves the mysterious disappearance of Will Byers in a small town in Indiana and what his family (his mother and brother) and friends do to find him as a mysterious entity is on the lose and government agents hunt a young girl with superpowers named Eleven, who joins Will’s friends Mike, Lucas and Dustin to find and rescue Will.

The Pros: The World – The world has the small town feel with the greater mystery as we have a small town where everyone knows everyone yet the threat from both El, the State and the alien entity making the small town threatening beyond the bullies who already inhabit the town.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and captures both the fun of Dungeons and Dragons when the boys are playing it, to the alien nature of the Upside Down where the alien entity comes from and is breaking through into our world.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is awesome and has wonderful 80’s songs littered through the entire show with a haunting 80’s synth for the opening. It is a film level soundtrack. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein did a great job on it.

The Writing – The writing feels real…the characters don’t speak contrived dialogue and the kids sounds like kids, teens like teens and adults sound like adults. It is surprising how rare this is in shows and films but this series doesn’t have that problem.

The Alien – The alien looks like a misshapen grey human from the back with long arms and am mouth like a Venus fly trip. It is terrifying in that you hardly ever see it fully. It is also deadly too as it kills Nancy’s friend Barb and has pumped Will full of it’s possible young even after he is rescued and it is defeated.

The Characters – The characters drive the story and each of them are more compelling than their stereotype or trope they represent in 80’s film.

Nancy Wheeler – Nancy is the nerd who joins the popular kids but after sees they are bullies leaves them. This is her trope that she goes beyond by building a relationship with Jonathan after both of them lose people to the alien and they take the fight to it. She becomes a leader and shows that she is awesome with a gun.

Jonathan Byers – Jonathan is the awkward creeper outsider who we learn is actually sensitive and respectful. That is his trope and how he goes beyond it is building a relationship with his mom when he learns she was telling the truth of talking to Will through the lights and seeing the alien. He’s also a cool older brother to Will and introduces him to great rock.

Chief Jim Hopper – Jim Hopper is the alcoholic divorced Police Chief who lost his daughter and never recovered from it. He changes in that he is the first to back Joyce when he discovers the State base and the area where the alien has made it’s home and the government wipes his memory. He is a dealmaker who doesn’t want to lose people and makes a deal for the State to get El back if he can save Will since he doesn’t want Joyce to lose a child too. For the bitter Police Chief he has a lot of compassion and empathy, and is quite good at his job.

Joyce Byers – Joyce is the main character besides Will’s friends. She is the one who is seen as crazy and in many ways did crack after Will went missing. She is also the one who sees the unknown and takes the risks and discovers the alien entity first. She is great in that she is someone who is doing the best she can with so much working against her. When she helps rescue Will we also see her begin to heal from her past abusive relationship and now having good relationships with her sons. Winona Ryder is wonderful in this role.

Dustin – Dustin is the guy who perceives a lot. He guessed the lunch lady was hiding the chocolate pudding, he knew when the State was coming and to get away and in the end it hints that he knows greater threats are on the horizon too. He is also the one who helps Lucas and Mike resolve their issues and brings the group back together. He is a pretty awesome kid with a lisp.

Lucas – Lucas is the member of Will’s friends who is the most driven and connected to those in the group. He distrusts El when they meet her partially out of fear of losing Mike but also because he wants to protect his friends. In the end he comes around though and even after he and Mike fight he warns and protects them and Eleven from the State as he sees who the real threat is.

Eleven – El is a character with superpowers who was taken from her mother in a government experiment and was being used to spy on the Russians during the Cold War before she escapes after she ends up opening the portal to the world the alien comes from. She is an amazing character who is learning how to control her powers and discovers what having friends is actually like and what it means. In the end she uses her power to hold away the entity and to keep it from our world after she and Mike basically admit love for one another. It is powerful and sad and we get the idea she is still out there fighting the entity.

Mike Wheeler – Mike is the main character and his arc is healing his relationship with his friends, his love for El and saving Will. He is a cool character and we see him willing to risk his life to protect those he cares about. He is also the DM for the boys’ Dungeons and Dragons game.

Coming of Age and Loss – This is the town’s coming of age and Nancy has sex for the first time and discovers her sexuality, Will discovers attraction, El discovers her own beauty and wants for the first time and Joyce and Jim confront their grief and loss and in it come together to heal as they try to save Will. It is powerful and these themes are always their below the surface in the many events and confrontations that take place through the show.

The Cons: The State and Their Motivations and Execution – I get they are fighting the Russians during the Cold War but beyond a faceless entity there was no depth to them at all. Even El’s “Papa” was just a monster who had no depth. This was a major con as every good show needs a good villain.

Leaving the Ending Open – The series could have ended and even though I want to see more I’m putting it as a con since they could have easily wrapped everything up and had the perfect show.

  This was a series that could have ended amazing with just 1 season and not setting up future seasons. I like that there will be more of this show, but like any story that keeps going, especially with television…I fear how it could bring around the overall quality of the show if it isn’t handled well. After defeating the alien things could have ended and it would have been perfect. Leaving it open brought it down a little for me. This is a world well worth your time though and the acting and writing is absolutely amazing. I have yet to have a bad experience with Netflix shows and this one is easily one of their best.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

Justice League: War (2014) – Moments of Charm But “The New 52” Brooding Brings Down

Justice League War

      Outside of “Batman: Under the Red Hood” I haven’t really checked out much of the DC Animated Universe outside of the Bruce Timm Universe which is one of my favorite animated universes and is truly the best of the DC Universe outside of the Batman Nolanverse. This a film with “New 52” vibes as all the characters are amped up and they are in a universe that isn’t a fan of them…so from the beginning it is starting out dark, which has been the whole theme of the new DC run of “The New 52.” There are some good moments in this, but the grim dark really brings it down.

     The film was directed Jay Oliva and written by Heath Corson and produced by Sam Register, James Tucker and Alan Burnett and based off the comic series “Justice League: Origin” by Geoff Johns, Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

    The story involves the Justice League coming together as they face off against one another to face the greater threat of Darkseid and his alien invasion.

The Pros: The Animation – The animation is beautiful and is one of the best parts of the film. The animation flows, tonally it keeps the dark and shadows of this new universe  and the action is great.

The Action – The action is also one of the best parts of this film. The fights between our heroes and against the alien invasion flow nicely and you feel the punches and destruction on the screen.

Green Lantern – Hal Jordan is likable in this as Batman is his mentor figure as he learns to rise to leadership among the rag tag group of outcasts. He’s a great character and I liked that he felt so weak around the others and kept trying to make up for it by jumping into battle. His dynamic with Batman is really what made him enjoyable though.

Batman – Batman is the cool head in this who knows who all of the Justice League are and helps Hal Jordan rise to the challenge and begin working with the others on the team. In this his lack of super-humanity is played up and he wins through dialogue most of the time. He’s also pretty respectful too. The one thing that felt off is when he says his name and motivations (I became Batman to avenge my murdered parents) to Hal, if I was Hal that wouldn’t make me feel any less comfortable with him being “Mr. Spooky.”

Okay/Pro: The Flash – The Flash is alright but it feels like a lot of his positive and snark were picked up by Hal Jordan instead, so he is never allowed to become the full person he is on a team in other versions of the character. I like that we see his life as a civilian though and the fact that Batman respects his work and vise versa.

Cyclops – Cyclops is the superhero who never chose to be one as it was in a fit of anger that he is warped by technology his father is studying. He is the closest thing to a main character the movie has but he still feels underdeveloped. Beyond impressing his father, he doesn’t really have a motivation.

The Cons: Shazam – Shazam is a little kid who turns into a superhero who idealizes Cyclops from when he was a football star and now that he’s a superhero. His character creeps on Wonder Woman and as a kid he’s just annoying. Seriously, I really hope this character doesn’t get his own film.

Darkseid – Darkseid is weak. The Justice League takes out his eyes and knocks him back into his portal. Most of his power is from his alien army and outside of that he’s pretty forgettable. Never felt like he’d be all that much of threat given he’d been handled better in Bruce Timm’s DCAU and the comics.

Wonder Woman – This film plays up Wonder Woman being a woman out of time (kind of a Thor like character) but never fully explores it. I felt like we never got to fully know her character and motivations beyond her feeling like she’s fighting among the gods. What doesn’t help is how most of the male superheroes objectify her.

Superman – The guys a creep who doesn’t care about controlling his power. Seriously, this version of him is a douchebro. He’s creepy and eyeing Wonder Woman, he’s beating on the other heroes because he can…I really hate this version of him. Seriously, give me the Bruce Timm one or one who still remembers who the ideal hero is.

Every Guy Wants to be with Wonder Woman – This is a Justice League Team with 6 men and 1 women, at least 5 of the men want to be with Wonder Woman…what the hell? You don’t even know her. This was really annoying and I hated how each was either trying to impress her or act like they owned her feelings (Superman, seriously screw that guy). It was uncomfortable and it was hard to believe they’d ever become a team with them already objectifying one of their Team Members during an alien invasion.

The Dialogue – The dialogue is really stilted and took me out of the film on more than one occasions. There are often awkward pauses and some things people say don’t feel natural at all.

This was a film that okay in the end. When it managed to give time to develop it’s heroes I felt like I could appreciate what it was trying to do. Sadly the eyeing of Wonder Woman (almost as if ownership over her (disgusting)) pulled me out of that though. In the end it felt like so many of them were competing and because of this all the civilians dying around them during the invasion were completely forgotten. This also happens when Superman fights Green Lantern and Batman…it’s like he’s out of “Man of Steel” as he cares nothing for the buildings he destroys when fighting people who are just trying to figure out what’s going on, just like him. In the end, it’s up to you if you want to see it. It’s hard to really recommend either way as there is so much to dislike even though some things were done alright.

Final Score: 7 / 10

The X-Files – Season 10, Episode 1 – “My Struggle” – A Return and Attempt to Go Somewhere

The X-Files My Struggle

     “My Struggle” is an episode that shows a lot of potential of where they can take the series and finish it off. I wouldn’t call it great, as it still has some very obvious issues but seeing a lot of the old cast back and in great form as their characters was rewarding…and the improvement in CG lead to some great images that captured the mystery of the “Myth Arc” of the series. I’ll get into more detail later down, but non-spoiler thoughts is that it is a story with potential.

     The episode was written and directed by Chris Carter.

     The story involves Scully and Mulder being pulled back into action when Skinner wants Mulder to talk to a conspiracy television host who maybe onto something big. This leads us into the action as our characters face the dilemma to go fully back into solving the X-Files and stopping the conspiracy.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – Mark Snow has composed some beautiful music for this series. It captures the mystery and tension, as well as the existential dread that haunts are characters as they try to face the much larger machine of the conspiracy.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is stunning and the use of darkness and shadows does a good job at expressing conspiracy and mystery. Can’t wait to see what new images are created.

The Characters – The main cast is compelling, even when their scenes are small. In each scene we learn something more about them, which helps drive the story forward.

O’Malley – This is the conspiracy theorist who hooks Scully and Mulder up with Sveta, a girl Mulder had interviewed when she was a child who had been abducted. He’s all about the “False Flags” and coverups of all kinds, which made it hard to take him seriously. They managed to humanize his character though and he is true believer in what he sells.

Skinner – Skinner tries to help when he can but when Mulder goes to meet him we see someone who is afraid and beaten down. He’s keeping his head down and it’s paid the price on how he looks and acts.

“The Cigarette Smoking Man” – He survived and is still around is probably pretty high-up if not the leader of the conspiracy at this point. Curious how they’re going to explain he’s a live…as they have a lot of ways they could do it.

Fox Mulder – Mulder has matured a lot and we see him dealing with his feelings for Scully throughout the episode. It is implied she ended it because she had trouble dealing with his depression and over the course of the episode we see that his suspicions are proven right when Scully tests her own DNA and discovers she’s a hybrid. From here they decide to start up a new X-Files to unravel the conspiracy once more.

Dana Scully – Scully’s arc is her becoming a believer in the events that have happened in the last seasons as she finally tests herself and discovers she is an alien hybrid like Sveta. From here she commits to the fight and finding Sveta, not knowing they are too late. Gillian Anderson is one of my favorite actresses and it is wonderful to see her back in this role.

Okay: Sveta – Sveta is alright but she doesn’t exist as a character beyond a victim and McGuffin. This is a shame as I wanted to know her story outside of being a victim of the government or aliens. She has abilities but that is all we know about her.

The Scientist – This is the guy who watches the government slaughter an alien who crashes and was involved in the experiments. He’s Mulder’s contact and makes Mulder a believer when Mulder realizes that it’s not the aliens, the aliens are cover for a great conspiracy.

The Cons: Monologues With No Answers – The Scientist and others go on long monologues that hint more than anything…I would have preferred less, especially if it is all just a big government cover-up.

Going Full “False Flag” – In this case I was hoping the aliens would be in on it (maybe they still are?) but what I got was full “False Flag” where the government or a clandestine government organization is controlling the world and responsible for all past events. “The Blacklist” does that better. Part of what makes “The X-Files” are the aliens and monsters and how they fit into everything.

   This was a show that is built on being subtle with the mystery, which is part of what made the mystery compelling initially. This episode’s biggest con is the lack of subtlety as the big conspiracy theorists are the ones who are proven to be correct by the end by implication. This Cabal better have a good idea for the “New World Order” if that really is the plan that is going down. Suffice to say we’ll see. I plan on reviewing the episodes as they come out, so we’ll see how it goes.

Final Score: 8 / 10

Thoughts on “The X-Files” Before I Review Its Return

The X Files

      After a long hiatus “The X-Files” is finally returning! This is a show that I think died for good reasons as the show had truly lost it’s way and missed so much of what made it good. I am looking forward to seeing what happens as I only made it through Season 2 before things got a bit too crazy and all the supernatural X-Files that were never brought up again eventually made it to hard for me to take seriously as a drama (“Supernatural” has a similar problem) and the fact that the answer is never answered. Part of what makes a mystery great is solving it, and we never have a false X-File, which made Scully’s role almost meaningless, especially since that is the entire point of Scully and Mulder is to find the truth. We never got that in any meaningful way.

    It was for these reasons that I stopped watching the show so long ago, even though I love the premise and am going to give it another chance. The first 2 Seasons on the myth arc were largely gold and now that this show has had to time think and re-cooperate we can continue to grow with the characters as the characters have always been the strongest part of the show.

    Whether it’s the Cigarette Smoking Man, Skinner, Deep Throat, X and Mulder and Scully…these characters were what really made it compelling as how they related to one another under both love and fear kept me watching and why I am giving it another chance. This show knew how to write characters.

   Eventually I will do a re-watch from the beginning, especially if Season 10 sells me that even the filler episodes and filler Myth arc were leading somewhere and had enough to stand on. When there was a great mystery or one shot story it really stood out and the myth arc when it worked, really worked and that is where greatness has the chance to happen again in this show. Well, the truth is out there. Let’s find out what the truth of this show is.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – Season 2, Episode 13 – “Earthlings Welcome Here” – Price of Deception and Truth

SCC Season 2 Ep 13

    “Earthlings Welcome Here” is really illustrating a problem I’m having with this series. It’s enjoyable but it keeps bringing up ideas that it never follows up on, especially in regards to Sarah Connor and her visions. The John Henry Arc is going really well at least and now we finally find out what Riley’s purpose is too and she gets development!

     The episode was directed by  Felix Enriquez Alcalá and written by Natalie Chaidez.

    The story involves Sarah Connor tracking a blogger from the UFO convention who has posted pictures of alien ships with the 3 dot symbol Sarah has been seeing everywhere. Things get more complicated as the blogger is hunted and Riley’s history and connection to Jesse is revealed.

The Pros: Sarah Connor – Sarah Connor investigates a blogger and we see how her drive and alienness from others leads to her being more isolated among the UFO folks and from herself. This episode is great at exploring her psychology.

Riley – Riley is tired of lying to John and more the more questions John and Cameron ask and her lack of support from Jesse lead to her attempting to take her life. She was a refugee in the Apocalypse chosen only to keep Cameron away from John…poor girl.

Cameron – Cameron is the protector once more and we see her being right about Riley lying. I’m not sure Cameron has met Jesse yet, but I don’t expect it to go well when they do eventually meet.

John Henry and Ellison – John is trying to counter what Jesse’s approach is as he teaches John Henry morality. His approach of saying “God is the reason and created people as sacred.” Doesn’t really give a reason wholly though. I really want him to go into philosophy.

Jesse – Jesse is cruel but her purpose makes sense. Her goal is to protect John from Cameron and from that a future where there can be any understanding between machines and humanity. I like it since it is the future she came from so fear is all she knows.

The Cons: John Connor – He’s stubborn, doesn’t listen to anyone and was really difficult to sympathize with at all this episode.

Aliens? – So Aliens are connected to Terminators and humanity…I’m confused. Are we in the X-Files?

Lack of Focus and Answers – I really hope we find out what the deal is with those dots are because I am really confused after this episode. If Sarah is going crazy, do more to show that. She’s a POV character so that is hard to pull off I get, but have her revelations lead to new information or change.

   The lack of focus and answers is really getting to me and how Sarah’s arc seems to be going nowhere…thankfully there was Ellison talking morality with John Henry and Riley’s backstory to offset these factors leading to a confusing but enjoyable episode.

Final Score: 7 / 10