A Lot More -Er

2016’s original Deadpool was a wonderful surprise – an R-rated movie from the Marvel canon that still made almost $800 million worldwide. On top of that, it was a critical hit. The success of Deadpool was sweet revenge for star and producer Ryan Reynolds. He’d always loved the character, but when he got the chance to play him in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the movie turn the character into a bland, generic bad guy. (Really? The “Merc with a Mouth” with his mouth sealed shut? No one saw a problem with this?) However, there’s nothing that Hollywood likes more than a reboot, and Reynolds, assisted by first-time director Tim Miller, made a film that was faithful to the source material, including Deadpool’s 4th wall shattering dialogue. The film was essentially a Warner Brother’s cartoon with a stratospheric body count, but it also confirmed that an R rating wasn’t the kiss of box office death for a Marvel-sourced film, which was confirmed with last year’s Logan.

For almost a year and a half there have been teasers about the next film, so the anticipation built. What would Deadpool 2 be like? The answer turns out to be a lot more of everything in the first movie: funnier, cruder, wilder. If meta-ier was a word, the dictionary illustration would be a still from this film.

The directing duties for Deadpool 2 were handled by David Leitch, the former stuntman who gave a shot of adrenalin to the revenge flick with John Wick, then did the same for the Cold War spy film with Atomic Blonde. Here the action is just as well choreographed, though skewed to the side of black comedy. The central set piece of the film is in effect the live action version of a Roadrunner cartoon, though with lots of coyotes getting taken out along the way.

Reynolds’ Wade Wilson/Deadpool is not in a good place as the movie begins. An extended flashback shows what brings him to the point of despondency where he tries to blow himself into little pieces. Considering he can’t die, that doesn’t go as planned. Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) brings him to the Xavier School to recover. Once Wade’s somewhat fit again, Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) bring him along on an emergency call. Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), a young mutant at an orphanage that doubles as a mutant reeducation center, has a meltdown and tries to kill the headmaster. Wade’s help turns a bad situation worse, and Collins kills one of the attendants. Both Collins and Wade are taken into custody by the authorities, who fit them with collars that suppress their powers and ship them to a super-max prison for mutants. But as they are settling in, a half-human/half-machine mercenary from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin) appears, looking to kill Collins.

Brolin is having a stupendous summer, with Deadpool 2 on track to beat the first movie at the box office, plus his performance as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War which is currently in fourth place on the all-time box office list and will likely move up to 3, or possibly 2, before it’s done. His stoic visage is a beautiful counterfoil for Deadpool. While she doesn’t appear until midway through the film, Zazie Beetz, as the super-humanly lucky Domino, comes close to completely stealing the film.

If you enjoyed the original Deadpool, you’ll probably really like this new iteration. If you didn’t, you really won’t like this film’s extra-large helping of everything we got the first time around. I’m of the former category myself. But while the first movie expanded the possibilities for the superhero genre as a whole, Deadpool 2 shows the limitations of this series. This isn’t a character that will grow – his deep thoughts are usually cut off when he shoots someone. While the wider Marvel Universe has grown as its stories have deepened in resonance, Deadpool is a niche within that Universe. Reynolds and his collaborators have polished every surface until it shines, but if another film is made it will be more – probably a lot more – of the same. While it breaks the 4th wall, Deadpool 2 doesn’t break any of its boundaries.

Advertisements

The Universe Expands

Ever since the first (now fourth) episode of Star Wars, the universe from that long time ago and far, far away story has expanded beyond the films. Novels based on it appeared even before The Empire Strikes Back, and they now number easily in the hundreds of volumes. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm, they green-lit the third trilogy originally planned by Lucas, but they also saw the potential to tap into the wider world of the series. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was the first step in that direction, though it truly qualifies as a prequel to A New Hope rather than a stand-alone film. With Solo: A Star Wars Story, they still stand squarely on the source material, but they reach out further.

The production of Solo didn’t go smoothly, and that handicaps the movie. The original duo of directors got canned by producer Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter & executive producer Lawrence Kasdan even though they were months into the shoot. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were successful in both animated films (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie) as well as live action (both Jump Street movies). Sometimes it works well to pick directors whose previous work is nothing like a major film series. This year Ryan Coogler, who’d done Fruitvale Station and Creed, entered the Billion Dollar Club with Black Panther. Last year Patty Jenkins, known for getting Charlize Theron an Oscar for Monster, shattered the previous box office record for a female director with the success of Wonder Woman. The Russo brothers had directed comedies before they did Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They’re now approaching the Two-Billion Dollar Club with Avengers: Infinity War.

But it didn’t work with Solo. Face with a monumental task to reshape the film so it could be released, Kennedy recruited A-List director Ron Howard. The amount of reshooting Howard did isn’t fully known, but some estimates put it at 80% of the film. Star Thandie Newton (Val) has said most of her work was with Lord and Miller, but for Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos) nearly all of his scenes that made it in the movie were directed by Howard. Howard is a Star Wars fan and was reportedly under consideration to direct The Phantom Menace (though it was probably for the best that he stayed away from that mess). He’d of course worked with Lucas on American Graffiti, and the two visited on the set while Howard was working on Solo, allowing Howard to pick Lucas’s brain. The extensive rework pushed the budget to the $300 Million level, making it  one of the most expensive movie of all time. It neared the level of two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (At World’s End and Stranger Tides, the most expensive film ever at $375 million) and Cleopatra, when adjusted for inflation.

Was it worth it? I’d say yes, with a caveat. The script by Kasdan (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens) in collaboration with his son, Jonathan, is the Star Wars equivalent of a superhero origin story, applied to the character of Han Solo. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail Caesar, Rules Don’t Apply) does an excellent job as a younger and less-jaded Han. We first see him as the teenaged indentured servant of a crime lord on a bleek, gray planet. He’s in love with a fellow servant, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), and the two try to make a break from their servitude and get away together. Han makes it, but Qi’ra’s caught. Han vows to get his own ship and come back for her.

After a few years that include a stint in the Imperial Fleet, Han hooks up with Becket (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Newton) on a heist of coaxium, the expensive fuel for star ships. The job goes sideways when a group of Cloud Rider ravagers try to take the coaxium for themselves. Becket had been hired for the job by Dryden Vos (Bettany) and he must make good on the crime lord’s investment. He tells Han to walk away since Vos doesn’t know of his involvement, but instead Han comes up with a heist that will both satisfy Vos and make them a handsome profit – but to do it they’ll need help.

The Kasdans have essentially crafted the science fiction equivalent of a heist movie in the Oceans 11 vein that establishes Han Solo’s outlaw character. Along the way he picks up the pieces that come together in the first trilogy: Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the Millennium Falcon, and more. Suotamo is a 7-foot Finish basketball player, taking over for the ailing Peter Mayhew. He does the role proud. With a sly smile and the swirl of his capes, Glover captures the essence of Lando. The Kasdans even take a shot at one of the elements of A New Hope that fans have debated for forty years.

Clarke, Harrelson, Newton and Bettany, as new characters, are all first-rate. The stand-out, though, is the droid L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. This is the first specifically female droid to appear, and Waller-Bridge makes her absolutely smashing and memorable.

My caveat with Solo is that the cinematography is often dark and dismal, so much so it interferes with the story. In several scenes you can’t see the faces of the actors clearly because of backlighting that puts them in shadows. Even the Millenium Falcon’s interior feels murky in comparison to its look in the other films. I was surprised by this, since the director of photography was Bradford Young. Young had recently shot A Most Violent Year, Selma, and Arrival, all excellent films I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s like he was going for the feel of natural lighting, but I like a movie where I can see what is happening.

The trilogy films have all be major box office events, and continue to be. There is space for other films, for other stories, in that universe. One hopes that the decent but modest box office of Solo, especially in light of the production costs, will not cause Disney to question their commitment to the Star Wars universe. I will always be ready to travel a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Prime Time

The “Fifty Shades” book trilogy could be called an embarrassment of riches. It sold like crazy, making a ton of money for author E.L. James and publisher Vintage Books (part of Random House), but they weren’t books most people displayed on their bookshelves. Likewise, the movie trilogy was savaged by critics, even as the series cumulatively grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. Now, though, we have the best “Fifty Shades” movie of them all: Book Club.

An unusual creative duo made the film. Bill Holderman got his start as an assistant to the producer on 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, then moved up to producer with Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator. He’d co-written the screenplay for A Walk in The Woods, which starred Robert Redford. An associate producer on Woods, Erin Simms had mostly worked as an actress, though many of her roles are of the “Female Reporter” or “New York Hotel Clerk” ilk as listed on IMDb. She’d never written a screenplay before, and Holderman had never directed. But they came together to write and produce Book Club, with Holderman directing, and they’ve produce an assured and well-paced comedy.

They also recruited a truly stellar cast, beginning with their four leads: Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen. Between them they’ve won 4 Oscars and 6 Emmys on top of numerous nominations. However, they’d never worked together before in their long careers. After seeing how well they play off of each other here, it’s a crime to think it took this long for them to be matched together.

The quartet play life-long friends who’ve met monthly to discuss a book for decades. Now in their later years, each is faced with a challenge. Diane (Keaton) is newly widowed, and her two daughters want her to leave California and move closer to them in Arizona. Then her life takes an unusual twist when she meets a handsome pilot, Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Vivian (Fonda), the hard-charging owner of a luxury hotel, reconnects with an old flame staying in her establishment (Don Johnson, a wonderful bit of meta-casting since his daughter, Dakota, starred in the Fifty Shades trilogy). Sharon (Bergen) is a federal judge who son and long-divorced husband (Ed Begley Jr.) are both now engaged to be married to women in their twenties. Carol (Steenburgen) is married to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), but while they still love each other the flame of passion has died. Vivian lobs a grenade into their worlds when she chooses “Fifty Shades of Grey” as the next book for the club to read.

It is a pleasure to see fine actresses (and actors) dive into their roles with abandon. Bergen zings lines in a way that recalls the heyday of “Murphy Brown” while still carrying one of the more emotionally resonant moments of the film. She also ends up on two dates with diametrically-opposed actors – Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn. The other pairings are inspired, particularly Steenburgen and Nelson with a dance routine to a Meatloaf song. But the biggest pleasure is seeing fully fleshed-out roles written for mature women in contrast to the ageism usually seen in Hollywood. A 70 year-old guy could have a love live, but not a similarly-aged woman. Time for a reality check.

The showbiz maxim (ascribed to many though likely originating with actor Edmund Gwen) is, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Yet the cast of Book Club make it look natural, and Holderman and Simms have crafted a screenplay that is laugh-out-loud funny, so much so that you might miss some lines amidst the audience’s laughter. Kudos also to E.L. James for being a good sport to allow the film to use her book (she does get a thank you from the producers in the credits).

Even in a week dominated by Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, Book Club came in 3rd place in the box office, with a weekend gross of $13.6 million. Considering the budget was a lean $10 million, it’s already in the black. It’s not surprising that it’s received a middling response from critics – the film seeks to entertain and does a good job of it, but it’s the type of film that’s usually dismissed as lightweight. However, its CinemaScore among viewers is A-. Mixed in among the blockbusters of summer, there’s usually a couple films that either tug at your heartstrings or tickle your funny bone without a five-wide scroll of special effects credits that goes on for a minute or two. Book Club definitely is the one that tickles the funny bone.

To Infinity – And Beyond!

And so, after 18 movies over the course of 10 years, we come to the end of the current Marvel Universe. It’s all been leading up to Avengers: Infinity War, with teaser appearances by big bad Thanos (Josh Brolin) salted through several of the previous movies. There was a certain amount of peril inherent in this strategy. What if Thanos didn’t measure up on the big screen? What if the climax proved anticlimactic?

The good news is Infinity War truly adds an exclamation point to the previous films. While a Marvel film is a hugely collaborative endeavor with plenty of oversight from producer and Marvel president Kevin Feige, along with Marvel’s owner, the Walt Disney Company, they do balance involvement with allowing their directors and screenwriters to breathe. Infinity War benefits from having Anthony and Joe Russo in the director’s chair – well, chairs. The brothers had worked on TV shows like “Arrested Development,” “Happy Endings,” and “Community,” along with films like Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me, and Dupree, before helming one of the best Marvel movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and following it up with the equally exciting Captain America: Civil War. They’ve shown an ability to tap into emotional truth and convey complex plots while still making an exciting and engrossing film.

Infinity War boasts the full roster of Marvel movie superheroes with two exceptions – Antman and Hawkeye. The massive cast could have created a headache for anyone trying to follow the story. However, Marvel veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote all three Captain America movies, as well as created “Agent Carter” for TV) subdivide the cast and the action. The story shifts between several locations – some familiar, some new – with a contingent of the cast in each locale. Think of a large, succulent steak dinner sliced up into bite-size pieces, and you’ll get the idea.

I won’t go into any specifics of the plot, since there’s too great a chance for spoilers – that is, if you happen to be one of the few people who haven’t seen the movie yet. It blew up the records for opening weekend gross for both domestic and international box office. It has been mentioned in the past, though, that Infinity War represented the end of the series of movies over the past decade, meaning that no character had their future assured. Markus and McFeely underscore that in the very first scene.

There had been some criticism of Josh Brolin’s Thanos, based on his brief appearances in the other films. Some thought the embodiment was cartoonish (you could say). However, those concerns are squashed in the opening scene of Infinity War. What’s unexpected, though, is the fine performance Brolin gives, even beneath the CGI embodiment. While he’s an obsessed madman on a galactic scale, there are moments of aching sadness and signs of humanity – hopelessly twisted, but humanity all the same – deep within him.

The main characters are well-established now, but there are standouts in the movie. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man started the whole Marvel Universe, but he had his best turn as the character in Captain America: Civil War. The screenwriters build on that experience as he is faced with a devastating loss. Tom Holland is one of the newest members of the Universe, yet his Spiderman is a pivotal part of the story. Thor: Ragnarok was a huge success for Chris Hemsworth a few months ago, and that movie sets up a large part of the arc of Infinity War’s story as he goes through the classic heroic plot of recreating himself to face a greater threat than he’s ever faced before.

The trailer I’ve attached does feature one scene that doesn’t appear in the movie. That’s often a negative for films – think Twister – though in this case it was important to keep a plot point hidden. (When you see the movie, you’ll understand,) While you have to be aware to catch it, Markus and McFeely have also answered what happened to the Red Skull after the climax of Captain America: The First Avenger.

Marvel has turned tags at the end of their movies into an art form, and they usually feature two these days, though Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was greedy and included six. Some are just fun, such as the last tag of Spider-man: Homecoming, but others build toward the next film or films. Infinity War has only one tag at the very end of the credits, but it’s a doozey, and leads directly to two films next year: Captain Marvel, with Brie Larson as the titular hero, and the still-untitled Avengers 4.

The only problem is, now we must wait a year.

Virtue vs. Virtual

The 1980s was a great time for motivational posters. One said: “If you don’t like the world the way it is, change it.” Nowadays, besides passivity or advocacy, there’s a third option: ignore it. That’s what the world decides to do in Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s new film based on the bestselling novel by Ernest Cline. When you can escape into virtual reality for hours on end, why try to change what’s actually happening?

Cline co-wrote the film with Zac Penn, who’s done the story for several Marvel Universe films. Half of the film’s set in a dystopian Cleveland that’s become the fastest growing city in the world. Because of lack of space, part of the city has mobile homes, RVs, and old custom vans stacked on scaffolding five or six levels high – no surprise the area’s known as The Stacks. It’s a bleak world, but almost all the residents spend their days in “The Oasis,” a virtual reality universe where you can do anything or be anyone.

In the real world, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teenaged orphan living with his aunt and her current loser boyfriend in the Stacks. His father had chosen his name because it sounded like a superhero’s name, like Peter Parker or Clark Kent. That hasn’t worked out in the real world, but when Wade enters the Oasis, he becomes Parzival, a variation on Percival, the Knight in Arthurian lore who recovers the Holy Grail. There is a holy grail built into the Oasis by its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). After Halliday passed away, a recording he made revealed that there were three challenges hidden in the Oasis that would lead to the biggest Easter egg ever – control of the Oasis and Halliday’s fortune of a half-trillion dollars. The first challenge has been found – an insane road race that includes wrecking balls, a tyrannosaurus, and King Kong – but no one has yet conquered it.

Along with the regular avatars competing, there’s a large contingent in every race from IOI Corporation, another virtual reality company that wants to take over the Oasis. The head of IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), was an associate of Halliday’s early in his career and parlayed that connection to become IOI’s director. Many of the other players have formed groups, but Parzival has resisted. He does have three friends – the tech geek Aech (Lena Waithe) who can fix anything, and the brothers Daito and Shoto (Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao) – and he’s drawn to another player, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), whose skills match his. But Sorrento’s set two subordinates on Parzival’s trail: in the real world, F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), head of IOI’s security, and in the Oasis, I-Rok (T.J. Miller), a bounty hunter whose chest is a huge skull.

Halliday, who grew up in the 1980s at the beginning of the electronic gaming, has filled the Oasis with 1980s cultural references, and there’s probably no better director today to bring that world to life than Spielberg. Interestingly, though, he eschewed any references to his impact on that era, so you see no bicycle flying across the moon – except at the beginning since Spielberg produced the film through Amblin’ Entertainment. The closest the references come to Spielberg is Parzival driving Doc Brown’s DeLorean from Back to the Future, a movie Spielberg executive produced. While another director might have dwelt on the nostalgia element, Spielberg keeps the focus on the story. Particularly outstanding is when Parzival and his group get to the second challenge, which is located in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. It both maintains the creepy horror of that movie but blends it with the challenge.

It’s particularly fun when the real person behind the avatar within Parzival’s team is revealed later in the movie. Rylance’s performance stands out as he makes Halliday an idiot savant in his game world, yet also imbues him with a deep and abiding humanity. Between his turn as Daggett, the businessman who works with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and his performance as Orson Krennic in Rogue One, Ben Mendelsohn has become the go-to actor when you need a heavy. (He’s recently completed the new version of Robin Hood, playing the Sheriff of Nottingham.) His Sorrento is both ruthless but flawed, but dangerous all the way through. The film also features a small but important role for Simon Pegg.

Watching the trailers on a smaller screen, along with screen shots from the film, I was concerned some scenes in the Oasis wouldn’t be watchable because of the dark cinematography. However, Spielberg’s long-time director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, has created gorgeous imagery on the big screen. The computer graphics are outstanding, so you feel immersed in the Oasis. Spielberg balances this beautifully with the vision of the real world. The one complaint I have with the movie is it takes almost twenty minutes to wrap up the story, and the energy does lag at that time.

In the end, rather than the motivational phrase I noted at the beginning, Ready Player One embraces a stanza from Prince’s song Let’s Go Crazy: “If you don’t like the world you’re living in, take a look around you, at least you got friends.”

More Ludlum Than le Carre

Former CIA officer Jason Matthews’ first novel, “Red Sparrow,” had its movie rights purchased for a seven-figure amount before it was published. It blended basic tradecraft with steamy sex scenes, and was successful once published, winning both the Edgar and ITW Thriller awards for the best first novel. You could say it was an appetizing read as well, since Matthews mentioned a specific dish in each chapter and included a recipe for it at the end of the chapter. Matthews has since created a trilogy for the characters; the final book, “The Kremlin Candidate,” has them looking for a Russian agent about to be appointed to a high position in the US government. (Hmm)

Now the movie version of Red Sparrow is in theaters, with Jennifer Lawrence in the main role. Although heavily promoted, it couldn’t overcome the massive appeal of Black Panther even in its third week, ending up far below in second-place. That wouldn’t be horrible, but a major film needs to make at least half its budget in the first week to have a hope of breaking even. Red Sparrow made about a quarter of its estimated budget, which doesn’t include the substantial publicity costs. The movie has some strengths, including a first-rate cast and a topical subject. However, the script by Justin Haythe is like a paint-by-numbers picture – it’s got the colors but it doesn’t blend. Haythe’s last two screenplays were the Johnny Depp bomb The Lone Ranger and the terminally sick A Cure for Wellness – not a good track record.

The plot has ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) pulled into the world of espionage by her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) after a broken leg ends her career on stage. The uncle’s name is Vanya, which I hope was a purposeful nod to Anton Chekov, though I have my doubts. Dominika’s forced to become a Sparrow, an agent trained to use her body to manipulate and compromise men. While Vanya believes in her abilities, the matron of the school (Charlotte Rampling) and a military intelligence general (Jeremy Irons) have their doubts.

Contemporaneously, CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) has a meeting in a Moscow park with a highly-placed mole in the Kremlin, only to have it interrupted by the police patrolling for vice offenses. Nate blows his cover to save the mole and manages to make it to safety at the embassy, but he’s forced to leave the country. Several months later, the mole surfaces and signals he wants to meet Nate. Nate heads to Hungary, as close to Russia as he can get, to re-establish contact. But also coming to Budapest is Dominika, fresh from Sparrow School, assigned to get Nash to give her the name of the mole.

The movie wants to follow in the vein of John le Carre, but instead Haythe can only manage a Robert Ludlum potboiler. Not the Matt Damon Bourne Identity kind of Ludlum, since that movie took the first chapter of the book and then re-wrote everything else. I mean the real Ludlum who was to spy novels what Jacqueline Suzann was to literature. (If you really want to see the difference, watch the 1988 Bourne Identity two-part TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith, but you’d be better off just to trust me on this.)  Haythe is a blunt instrument when it comes to writing. You wonder why spying is so hard because the agents in this film figure out who’s on each side apparently just by looking at each other. Later in the movie, a stakeout is ruined by the most obvious mistake that no actual agent would ever make.

The movie is not helped by Boris and Natasha Russian accents on the part of some of the actors. At one point, Lawrence asks Edgerton how he knew she was Russian, and you expect Edgerton to say, “Well, duh.” For much of the movie, Lawrence the actress seems as confused about what’s going on as her character. The script eliminates one of the more interesting aspects of Dominika from the book: she sees people’s emotions as colors which allows her to discern their characters, a play on a real condition called synesthesia. It could have led to some interesting visuals and given Lawrence more to work with in the role.

Director Francis Lawrence had worked with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) on the Hunger Games films after Gary Ross did the first. He was a music video director before switching to features with films like Constantine, I Am Legend, and Water for Elephants. Lawrence is strong on visuals and action, but his style is straightforward. The best-directed spy films, like Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American, or the granddaddy of them all, Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, create their tension through nuance and small moments that eventually loom large. Watching those movies is like slowly sipping a glass of exceptional wine that leaves you satisfied at the end. Red Sparrow is more like several shots of vodka that leave your senses dulled by the experience.

A caution: the film has a fair amount of nudity, sex, and violence. It can be justified given the material, but rather than use suggestion Red Sparrow dives in headlong, reveling in it. A torture scene with a skin graft slicer is particularly cringeworthy. Overall, Red Sparrow isn’t as bad as it could have been, but it’s no where near as good as it should have been.

We Have Met the Enemy

Alex Garland made a bold statement with his first direction credit. He’d been writing screenplays for fifteen years, beginning with the adaptation of his novel, “The Beach.” He’d followed that with the original screenplay for Danny Boyle’s revamp of the zombie genre, 28 Days Later, in 2002 – you could call it “The Running Dead.” He did another original screenplay for Boyle, 2007’s Sunshine, then adapted Kazou Ishiguro’s novel  Never Let Me Go and the illustrated series Dredd. But when he directed his original screenplay Ex Machina, he created a science fiction/mystery blend that stunned audiences. It was a three-person chess match where two of the characters didn’t realize that it was them who were being played. The film made Alicia Vikander an international star, while Domhnall Gleason and Oscar Isaacs went on to duel each other in Star Wars.

Now Garland is back with a much more ambitious meditation on humanity in the science fiction genre. Annihilation, an adaptation of the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, flips forward and backward in time as it tells the story of an expedition into a section of the planet that has, in effect, become an alien world. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and teacher whose special forces husband, Kane (Oscar Isaacs), went off on a mission a year earlier and hasn’t been heard from since. Then he walks into their house, unable to explain what has happened or where he’s been. The reunion is short-lived as he soon collapses, coughing up blood. While racing to the hospital, their ambulance is cut off by the military. Lena and Kane are taken to an undisclosed lab.

There Lena meets psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who explains what has happened. A meteor hit a lighthouse in a state park area, and soon the structure was encircled by what observers termed “the Shimmer.” A park ranger went in to check on the lighthouse and never came back. Other expeditions have been sent into the Shimmer, but no one has come back, except for Kane, who’s now in a coma. As time has passed, the Shimmer has expanded. The government has kept the story quiet, but the Shimmer soon will expand to heavily populated areas and the story will be uncontainable. Ventress is leading a new expedition, made up of physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cassie Shepherd (Tuva Novotny), and paramedic Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez). Lena decides to join the expedition to discover some way to help her husband.

The story owes a debt to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The DNA of plants and animals within the Shimmer has blended with alien DNA, changing the landscape elementally. But as they travel deeper, the team finds what they’ve brought into the Shimmer inside themselves may be the most dangerous element. As the old Pogo comic put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Portman is a wonderfully cerebral actress who makes thinking an engrossing action, but she also began her career with the action flick Leon – The Professional. Here she has to call on her skill in both genres. While primarily an intellectual puzzle, action erupts often without warning. On the other hand, Gina Rodriguez is mostly known for her sympathetic lead role on “Jane the Virgin,” but here she turns into a bad ass who could give Schwarzenegger a run for his money. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is guarded and withdrawn even as she leads the group, though a reason for her behavior is later revealed. After playing Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, Thompson’s Josie is perhaps the most thoughtful of the team. Tuva Novotny has mostly worked in her native Sweden, amassing over 60 credits in twenty years. She’s rarely done Hollywood films – she had a role in the Julia Roberts film Eat, Pray, Love in 2010 – so she’s a fresh face here while also being an experienced and competent actress.

As in the book, the female makeup of the team passes without comment. While principal photography was done almost two years ago, coming out now was perfect timing. The old conventions have been blown apart, the stereotypes stripped away, and now there’s a chance for truly exciting films that eschew the formulae that have existed for decades.

Garland chose a different way of adapting the book. He’d read it when it came out, but rather than returning to the source material, he’s said he adapted it “like a dream of the book,” based on his memory of the story. Since the book is written as journal entries of one of the characters, the loose adaptation not only makes sense but likely improved the story on the screen.

The film is visually arresting as the familiar is twisted into an alien tableau that’s both beautiful and grotesque. In a similar way to what happens to the characters, the movie invades your brain and makes you consider this world from a very different perspective. You’ll be thinking about it long after you exit the theater.