(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.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) The problem with second seasons of high-concept shows is that you don’t quite have the same element of surprise in reserve. In Westworld’s case, it means that the dizzying timeline tricks and character revelations of the first seasons can’t be exactly reproduced, and that the show has to work within known parameters. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t try to keep things interesting. Set in the few days immediately after Season 1, this second series follows characters as they react to the events of the first season, revealing new secrets along the way and digging even deeper in mind-twisting questions about personalities and predetermination. Thanks to the endless wonders of flashbacks, simulations and body/mind separation, nearly the entire cast is back (yes, even those confirmed dead), meaning that the solid acting talents of the series are once more on display. Tessa Thompson gets a deservedly more prominent role, while Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and Rachel Lee Evans all keep on doing what they did so well the first time around. While I was initially disappointed by the series’ renewed focus on the park (I expected the hosts to escape in-between seasons), the park’s uncovered secrets made things even more interesting. And while this second season is straightforward about its dual-timeline structure, it does experiment with storytelling in focusing certain episodes on specific characters (some of them peripherals) and taking trips in other theme park areas to hilarious parallel effect. My pick for most-improved character goes to Lee Sizemore, formerly an annoying writer here transformed into the incarnation of everything he wished for (including a late empathy boost for his own creations) in a neat commentary on the relationship between creator and characters. Meanwhile, the season’s best episodes (setting aside the season finale that features so many character deaths that it feels obliged to have a few resurrections as well) has to be the eighth, in which a relatively unsophisticated character discovers the true nature of his world in a mostly self-contained episode that spans decades of series history. There is, once again, a lot of material to digest in Westworld—the storytelling is challenging, the themes are explored to the point of pretentiousness, and the science-fiction devices used in generally compelling fashion. It all amounts to solid TV—worth following as it airs, episode after episode.
(Video On-Demand, April 2018) I really wasn’t expecting Thor: Ragnarok to be anything more than a self-imposed completionist task on the way to Avengers: Infinity War. I found the first two Thor movies to be among the weakest of the MCU so far, both dull and imbued of their own nonsensical self-importance. Thor-the-character I liked largely because of Chris Hemsworth’s charm, and Loki is fine as one of the MCU’s most compelling antagonists, but the rest of the series was a chore—a small-town battle in the first film made for a poor high point, whereas the second film’s gleeful waddling in its own uninteresting mythology had me despairing about its self-referentiality. But a change of pace can do wonders, and it doesn’t take a long time for Ragnarok to highlight its difference. Under screenwriter/director Taika Waititi’s particular sensibilities, Thor become much funnier, much looser, and far more interesting. The ponderous visual atmosphere becomes influenced by rock music iconography, and a pitch-perfect use of The Immigrant Song makes for a showcase opening sequence that tells out that it’s fine to forget about the two previous movies. As a matter of fact, the opening of Ragnarok is so jolly, fast paced and self-deprecating that it made me worry that the film would be an insubstantial series of jokes without weight. But as it turns out, the film actually becomes more efficient once its charming hooks are deeply embedded: As the film builds its dramatic tension, the humour is balanced by action and drama and the result is quite effective despite almost completely destroying one of the MCU’s major settings along the way. It helps that Hemsworth meets a worthwhile match in Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie in terms of charisma—once you factor in Jeff Goldblum as an antagonist, Cate Blanchet proving that she can do darkly sexy and surprise appearances by a few MCU regulars, the film remains great good fun throughout. Waititi knows how to make a film that moves (his Valkyrie sequences are visually spectacular and innovative, which isn’t something we often say within the MCU), and the trip to another planet isn’t a distraction from the overall series. Ragnarok leaps over its limp prequels to become one of my favourite MCU films, which really wasn’t something I was expecting when I started to watch it.