(Netflix Streaming, January 2019) It’s rare to see first-class science fiction movies gets as weird and eerie as Annihilation—although, considering the source that is Jeff Vandermeer’s novel, it’s not that unexpected. The film clearly heads out to Stalker/Solyaris territory in presupposing a zone of strange phenomena and a group of explorers tasked with understanding some of what’s going on. Headlined by a power group of gifted young actresses (Nathalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson in glasses and curly hair—yes!), this film gets more and more unsettling as the group gets closer to the source of the anomaly, and it takes them apart in very literal ways. The really good production design and rainbow-hued cinematography give justice to the uncanny visuals and troubled subject matter—the film is not interested in theatrics (or even understanding what’s going on) as much as in studying grief, terminal melancholy and self-destruction. Everybody has a bad past in this film, and it’s that past that challenges them more than the alien presence at the heart of the zone. Compared to the writer/director Alex Garland’s previous Ex Machina, Annihilation is more subtle, more hermetic, more suitable to a range of interpretations (what’s with the tattoo thing?) than its preceding nuts-and-bolts nightmare. It’s just as thought-provoking, however, and a good example of the avenues that filmed Science Fiction has not yet fully explored.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) Many recent science-fiction movies are probing the uncomfortable notion of humans being replaced by their creations, but few have the nerve to do so as deviously as Ex Machina does. At first, it seems like a familiar kind of film: A young man is brought in to a remote location to administer a Turing Test to a freshly-developed Artificial Intelligence. What could go wrong? Oh, we know the answer to that question. But Ex Machina goes there through unexpected paths: It stacks the deck against its lovelorn examiners by featuring a robot optimized for sex-appeal, bypassing higher cognitive functions by going straight for base instincts. (Much as I loathe to admit any robosexual fetishes to the world at large, Alicia Vikander is here far more attractive as a visibly artificial character than when she dons a dress and wig to pass as human.) Oscar Isaac turns in another terrific performance as a mad genius combining technical skills with in-your-face arrogance. (The dance sequence alone is instantly memorable) Domhnall Gleeson is just as effective as the audience stand-in, a young man who doesn’t even realise the extent to which he’s being manipulated. But the mastermind here is writer/director Alex Garland, who direct a great first film from his own tight and mean script. There’s a deceptive simplicity to Ex Machina’s surface that hides a lot of philosophical allusions, well-explored ideas and contemporary fears. The result maximizes its secluded location and small cast to present a great science-fiction film, unnerving from beginning to end and very successful in what it manages to achieve. It’s a surprisingly raw treatment for a cerebral subject, and it’s a sure-footed modern classic about a well-worn SF trope.
(Video on Demand, April 2013) One thing is for sure: As a take on the British comic-book character Judge Dredd, this is quite a bit better than the 1995 Sylvester Stallone film. Dredd dispenses with its protagonist’s origin story, overt character development and even heroically refuses to show his entire face: the result is quite a bit closer to the intention of the original comic book material. It helps that producer Alex Garland has been able to put together a day-in-the-life action film that stands alone absent any connections to the wider Dredd mythology: Pete Travis’ direction shows occasional flourishes, and the action cleverly focuses on a single megaskyscraper taken over by criminals. It falls to Judge Dredd (Thanklessly played by Karl Urban, who never removes his eye-obscuring helmet) and trainee Cassandra Anderson (adorably chimpmunk-faced Olivia Thirlby) to clean up the mess, even as they go against a powerful drug lord (Lena Headley, faaaar from her Game of Thrones role) and entire floors of hardened criminals. Other than the dystopian setting, the film’s biggest SF device is a “Slo-Mo” drug that slows down perception to 1% of current time –visually presented with sparkly ultra-so-motion. The action set-pieces are numerous and decently handled, even often beautiful despite the substantial gore that they portray. If nothing else, Dredd is a fine action film, not flawless (the early scenes outside the apartment building betray a small budget) but stylish enough at a time when there are so many cookie-cutter films of the sort. Fans of the over-the-top comic book series may be disappointed to see that the film doesn’t have the resources to indulge in the universe’s wilder facets, nor the audience familiarity to be as cuttingly sarcastic about its own premise. But Dredd ought to please a wider audience than just the comic book fans, and that’s an honorable result given what happens to most comic-book-inspired films.