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

Paranoia Agent – A Beautiful Critique of Society, the Self, Life and Death

        “Paranoia Agent” is a fascinating anime that pulls you in almost immediately as it proceeds to critique and explore reality through the world it exists in and the characters who inhabit it. My friend had recommended this anime to me and I’m glad that I finally got around to seeing it as any story that explores deep concepts and ideas and does it through complex characters is a story worth watching. It helps that the director Satoshi Con is one of my favorites for his film “Tokyo Godfather.”

     The story takes place in Japan involves Tsukiko, a character designer who created a famous character named Maromi (after her childhood pet)  who is under pressure at work to create the next character just as famous. When she is walking home at night a young boy with a twisted bat and roller skates attacks her leading to an investigation that leads to questions about what really happened as this Lil’ Slugger grows into legend as more attacks occur.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is very much a reflection of our own but with supernatural elements as Lil’ Slugger proves to be a major break from reality beyond the breaks from reality our characters face in the show. This is part of what makes it so fascinating. All our characters are broken and it is through their fractured lenses that we view their world.

The Tone – The tone is dark with an element of unrealness. From characters like toys being able to talk, but only a select few hearing them, a guy who sees life as an RPG where people are monsters to be defeated and an actual monster in Lil’ Slugger. The tone is dark as all our characters are broken in different ways and that is established early.

The Animation – The animation is beautiful and does a great job capturing the twisted reality of our characters and the dark tone. It is beautiful and at times trippy as warped reality scenes appear on multiple occasions.

The Characters – The characters are complex and fascinating, with the Police Chief being my favorite as he is caught up in his old ways but it is in his finding empathy for others and their perspectives that helps him save Tokyo from Tsukiko whose fears and denial created Lil’ Slugger in the first. We get a lot of days in the life of characters too and their relation to the events unfolding and how they react to the Lil’ Slugger incidents.

Gossip and the Creation of Legends – One of the major themes of the episode is Gossip and how it can feed the darker aspects of already horrendous things (like the Lil’ Slugger attacks) we see a group of women isolate and pick on another as each tries to one up what they know about Lil’ Slugger…Through it all there is fear of the other and the woman who is quiet is constantly targeted by the gossiping horde who has turned Lil’ Slugger into Legend.

Consumer Culture and How it Feeds Isolation and Fear – Isolation and the things that feed isolation are a major theme of the show too. From Maromi being the isolating factor of consumerism that gives Lil’ Slugger a feast of people’s insecurities and their avoidance of others and responsibilities. The ending sets up Lil’ Slugger is likely to return as rebuilt Tokyo is just like the Tokyo before meaning the same culture of consumerism is likely to lead to another being overwhelmed and creating another Lil’ Slugger as no one cares about anyone beyond themselves.

Escape versus Obligation and Responsibility – Escape versus Obligation is another theme as all our characters are running away. Whether it is running away from life, suffering, responsibility, etc. The episodes are about reeling them back in and forcing them to confront their obligation or responsibility. IT is only in taking responsibility for the death of her pet that Tsukiko is able to stop Lil’ Slugger from completely destroying Tokyo.

How Denial Can Consume – Denial consumes a lot of our characters…and each instance Lil’ Slugger arrives and kills them or knocks them out. Sometimes he saves, sometimes he arrives after they’ve already done the damage, like the anime worker who kills his entire team or the Police Chief after he’s lost his position. In one instance he has a suicide group who chases him and it is the only time he’s afraid as his power comes from those consumed by guilt and fear and the three who chase him were not. In the end denial destroys Tokyo as even Tsukiko’s guilt was not enough to turn Lil’ Slugger into the darkness that consumes Tokyo.

Isolation versus Relationship in Culture – All our characters are isolated and it is only in moments of connections with others that they find relief and peace. Isolation is what feeds Lil’ Slugger as lack of communication leads to obsession and fear. In the anime the culture of Japan in the story is one where everyone is isolated on their phones and stuck in their jobs and not wanting any responsibility or obligation. It represents the own darker nature of humanity and our own contradictory nature of wanting connection but wanting to be alone. Wanting responsibility but wanting none at all. This anime is great at showing the two sides of wants and desires and does it so well.

  This is easily one of my favorite animes now. Like “Tokyo Godfathers,” Satoshi Con created another classic that gives us complex characters and deep things in an overarching narrative that is willing to push the boundaries of understanding and comfort and in the process creates a masterpiece well worth your time. I’m extremely grateful to my friend for recommending this anime, and I plan to watch it again. There are so many deep themes that are covered and the complex characters are the perfect way to present these ideas. This is a perfect anime that sets out and achieves it’s narrative ends.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006): A Fascinating World and Wonderful Love Story

tWristcutters A Love Story

“Wristcutters: A Love Story” take a fascinating premise (any folks who die through purposeful suicide or other (drug overdose) are sent to an inbetween world, slightly worse than our own. It is a world where they cannot feel or smile but that there is more to as well as miracles can be performed and otherworldly beings act as humans. The screenplay was based off the short story by Etger Keret called Kneller’s Happy Campers, a story I now plan to read later as well as the graphic novel Pizzeria Kamakazi.

This is a difficult subject to do a movie over and if the film had made light of suicide I wouldn’t have directed it. Though it does have dark humor, it also has so much respect for it’s characters and their motivations, that for that reason alone the film is already rated very high after watching.

“Wristcutters: A Love Story,” was directed and written by Goran Dukić and produced by Chris Coen, Tatiana Kelly, Mikal P. Lazarev and Adam Sherman.

The story is about Zia (Patrick Fugit) who commits suicide after his ex breaks it off with him. He is transported to the world where all suicide victims go and here learns that his ex Desiree (Leslie Bibb) killed herself as well. Having no memory of his prior life besides the incident he goes off to try and find Desiree while Eugene (Shea Whigham), a Russian musician and the Hitchhiker Mikal (Shannyn Sossoman) who is looking for the People in Charge as her coming here was a mistake. From here the story unfold as characters clash and more about prior lives is revealed.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The World – The world the suicide people are transported to is fascinating. It is like a post-apocalyptic wasteland but with the trappings of our own. There are cops, restaurant owners and people can still experience some of the same things. There are also miracles too, showing how this world is very physically different than ours in it’s Laws (Law of Gravity, etc.).

The Soundtrack – The music for this film is wonderful. It is reflective and gets you into the circumstances of the characters and situations. Bobby Johnston and Gogol Bordello were prefect for this film.

Zia – Initially it was hard for me to like this character, he was way too apathetic and he had no motivation. He doesn’t really become interesting til he meets Eugene, who is a live for each moment kind of guy and finds out Desiree is alive which gives him a motivation to leave the rut he’s stuck in in this afterlife. It after he meets Mikal that things change as she sees the bigger picture and gets him to think about the miracles they see and in turn about the life he once lived as she talks about all the people she left behind she misses. This changes him from a very selfish to selfless character to the point that he waits for her and makes community in this new world. Patrick Fugit does a great job.

Eugene – He’s a bit base at times (can’t see beyond physical, only comments on physical) but he grows as a character too when Mikal calls him out on his crap and he falls in love with someone at Kneller’s commune. He is a bit of the comedic relief but has a lot of heart.

Mikal – Mikal is one of the most interesting characters as she came to this world by accidental drug overdose. She is there reminding everyone of the world they left behind and to take control of their lives since she’s looking for the People in Charge. We see her love with ZIa happen over time as she distrusts him when Eugene is bashing her belief in People in Charge and Zia does nothing to stand up to that but they resolve things when Zia stands up to a cop who pulls her over for asking questions. After this we see their friendship and later love when Mikal says she’ll see Zia again and to wait when the PIC arrives and Zia realizes Desiree died for religious reasons for a psychotic madman who kills himself again in the world they are in. Sossamon owns this role and is one of the best parts of the film.

Kneller – Is not all he appears to be. The group (Zia, Mikal and Eugene) find him on the side of the world and he takes them to his commune where miracles happen if you aren’t invested in them…which is almost zen in how amazing things happen when they aren’t forced. His dog eventually gets stolen by Messiah King which leads to a confrontation that shows that Kneller is one of the People in Charge (PIC). We see that he is a good guy too when he takes Zia’s file so Zia will appear again in the hospital next to Mikal, completing both their arcs. He has a great community too as they are outcasts which is what this world is made of, and especially the main leads. Tom Wiats is greats.

The Message – The message at the core seems to be reasons to live, showing how connected all of us are no matter how apathetic we may first appear to be. It also is not to judge by appearances as Eugene comes around as a good guy and Zia and Mikal are shown to have a lot of depth. This makes the movie powerful as it treats victims of suicide with respect and also shows what there is to live for in life. It isn’t moralizing or blaming, it’s trying to show as much a picture as it can through it’s point of view.

Okay: Desiree – I never got the love between her and Zia so her becoming a religious fanatic for a Cult Leader and killing herself for him to get to the world wasn’t a surprise. This was a shame as most of the other characters get a lot of exploration. She’s a plot device, but not a bad one.

Messiah King – Is also a plot device to reveal that Kneller works with the People in Charge, he’s a crazy guy who thinks he is God and kills himself in front of everyone. I never got his motivations either and there was nothing to show him as special versus Kneller who was helping people perform miracles.

Slow Start – The first 30 minutes of the movie are pretty slow, and considered how apathetic Zia is at that point it’s hard to get invested until he runs into Eugene and we learn more about the world and he finds his motivation.

I would highly recommend this film. It is truly great and I’m grateful my friend let me borrow her version of it. This film lets the characters tell their own stories and shows the complex motivations that make us do things or change our outlooks on life. It also shows a great love story as two people who feel attraction fall in love over their conversations and adventures when they become friends and onward from there. Only issue is Desiree and Messiah King felt more like plot devices than actual characters, and it does start out pretty slow. Regardless, it really is a good film that covers a difficult subject with a lot creativity and respect.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10. A favorite film for sure.