The new film from Alex Garland (Ex Machina) is adapted from the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, but its roots go deeper than that. Aficionados of sci-fi horror, of which this is a sterling example, will doubtless recognise the influence of John Carpenter’s The Thing on this story of a group of scientists who have to contend with the alien and dangerously uncanny, but really Annihilation smacks of horror grandmaster HP Lovecraft’s short story The Colour Out of Space, first published in 1927, which tells of a wilderness area affected by a strange meteor that causes strange mutations in the local plant and animal life.
Here the area is a vast stretch of Floridian swampland, the effect is called “the shimmer” for the pearlescent quality of the atmospheric barrier that separates the afflicted zone from the rest of the world, and Lena (Natalie Portman), a cancer specialist and army veteran, is one of a group of five women (the others are Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Nuvolny, and Tessa Thompson) sent in to try and learn anything about the weird goings-on. They’re not the first team of investigators sent in, and they know it’s probably a suicide mission. Each has their own motive for volunteering.
Lena’s is guilt; her affair with a colleague prompted her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) to volunteer for a prior expedition, and he is the only explorer to return thus far, terribly ill, emotionally numb and on the brink of death. The need to find out what has happened to him drives her on, even as she and her team are confronted with missing time, mutated predators (the shark-toothed alligator seen in the trailers is not the worst), and mounting evidence that whatever is changing the local wildlife is also changing them.
Garland, who also wrote the script cannot directly translate VanderMeer’s famously oblique and elliptical novel directly to the screen, but he does take it as the basis for a remarkably effective horror movie that practically drips eerie atmosphere as thick as the swampy humidity of its setting. And it is, beyond doubt, a horror movie, complete with grotesque creatures and some unusually high-end gore, including one scene of evisceration that is particularly hard to forget.
However, like all the best horror, Annihilation is steeped in character, mood, and ideas. The acting across the board is top notch, with each of the women in the squad granted distinct personalities and tics in a scenario that pretty much defines them by their jobs (indeed, the source book doesn’t even give them names). For all that the blood and the monsters are effective, it’s the film’s foreboding, relentless tone that lingers in the mind – the sense of the alien intruding into and poisoning the mundane world. Ravening alligators are one thing, but it’s the way Garland shows the natural landscape changing that really disturbs: in one scene we see deer with floral antlers; in another, shrubs that have taken on the semblance of human form.
Our characters are changing, too, including our nominal point of identification, Lena, and Annihilation pulls some clever tricks messing with our understanding of what we are seeing. The whole thing is told in flashback, as Lena is questioned by a bio-hazard-suited interrogator (Benedict Wong), and canny film-goers know this is shorthand for “unreliable narrator”, but the film goes further than that. As things get weirder and more dangerous as the expedition heads deeper into the shimmer, a semi-plausible rationale for what’s happening is foregrounded, but little supporting evidence is offered, suggesting rather tantalisingly that while the characters can make inferences about the phenomena they’re witnessing, they’re simply filtering what they’re experiencing through their own preconceptions; any semblance of concrete truth or verifiable fact drifts further out of reach as their own subjectivity is stressed by the shimmer. As each character’s understanding of what is or might be happening veers further away from the others’, paranoia begins to take hold and, inevitably, violence. It’s incredibly unsettling, and perhaps the first time an onscreen alien encounter has felt actually alien since, well, Alien (or, you know, The Thing).
It’s hard to say right now if Annihilation is worthy of being set alongside those worthy films at so close a remove but if it doesn’t, it comes oh-so-very close. At the very least it’s a rock solid, strikingly effective sci-fi horror movie constructed with rare skill and absolute commitment to its own guiding ethos, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Third time’s the charm for the Thor strand of Marvel’s massive movie superhero franchise. While Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World have their charms and their fans, both lacked that je ne sais quoi that separates the high host of superhero films from the rank and file. This latest offering, Thor: Ragnarok, tries to course correct by drafting in director Taika Waititi (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) to lean into the comedic elements, and it works a treat.
Ragnarok sees our lightning-swinging hero (Chris Hemsworth) banished to the far-flung planet of Sakaar where he’s forced by an alien despot, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum at his saturnine, eccentric finest) to battle in the gladiatorial arena against his champion – who turns out to be none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), lost at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron and making a life for himself crushing skulls at the far end of the universe.
The big green guy is not the only familiar face in the mix – treacherous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has wormed his way into a position of esteem in the Grandmaster’s court, and there’s also Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), once one of Odin’s chosen elite warriors, now a booze-hungry bounty hunter. Hopefully the Thunder God can win them to his cause and stage a Spartacus-style revolt quick smart, because he really needs to get back to Asgard, where goddess of death Hela (a slinky Cate Blanchett, clearly having All The Fun) has installed herself as ruler, and is oppressing the populace with the help of the Cockney-accented traitor, Skurge (Karl Urban).
That sounds like it has all the makings of a portentous, ponderous, self-serious sci-fi epic, and perhaps in other hands it would have, but Ragnarok is, first and foremost, a comedy. Waititi goes out of his way – indeed, sometimes far out of his way – to undercut the more stentorian, Wagnerian elements with his trademark deadpan Kiwi humour, which pairs nicely with Hemsworth’s impressive comedic chops. Every iconic shot is balanced with a self-deprecating one-liner, every big action beat includes one or more Stooges-worthy pratfall (look for Ruffalo’s brave leap into danger in the back half). There are times when it almost becomes too much, and you want the film to take itself seriously for one damn second.
It works because Taika and his team clearly love this stuff – the whole Frazetta-inflected, Moebius-inspired, ’70s-as-hell, OTT, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, isn’t-Flash-Gordon-amazing lot – which is why the movie is essentially a prog rock album cover come to life. They love this kind of cosmic nonsense in a similar manner to the way Guardians of the Galaxy‘s James Gunn does: a way that knows this is all ridiculous, but it’s still awesome, too. Yes, it’s fun to hear Thor drop non-sequiturs about how much he misses his hammer, Mjolnir, or have Waititi himself voice an alien gladiator in full “sweet as, bro” Kiwi mode, but here’s the Hulk fighting Fenrir, the giant wolf of the apocalypse – look at that!
Ragnarok is so much fun, in fact, that its faults take a while after viewing to land, and even then they’re fairly minor. For one, Anthony Hopkins’ Odin is mercilessly sidelined in a way that is both twee and nonsensical, and involves some of the worst CGI of the whole film. For another, the film is very quick to forgive Loki, who is, lest we forget, both a murderer and a would-be dictator – but let’s face it, Hiddleston is so charismatic, it’s forgivable. Perhaps the biggest issue is the way Ragnarok departs so completely from what has gone before in terms of tone and intent. It’s difficult to view the Thor franchise as a complete whole; rather it’s a series of attempts to “get it right”. You could make the argument that Ragnarok leans too far away from the sturm und drang that has characterised, or at least informed, the previous films, and while that’s not necessarily a deal breaker, it’s a fair observation.
But hey, here’s Tessa Thompson leading an army of women warriors on winged horses! Here’s Cate Blanchett in full supervillain mode!
Thor: Ragnarok is a good time all the time; a big, colourful, action-packed piece of spectacle cinema that’s smart enough not to take itself too seriously, and even smarter not to descend into self-parody. It’s really a joyous piece of cinema, a celebration of all the things that comics in particular and fantasy in general can do better than any other medium or genre, and almost certainly the best time you’ll have at the movies this year.