Our Research Mission Is Still Not What It Seems (feat. Ciara Wardlow) | Episode 87

Posted February 23, 2018

Are you a top scientist gearing up to investigate an unexplainable phenomenon at a great distance from home? We warned you in one of our earliest episodes to be careful. The rule still applies as Chance and Noah dissect Alex Garland’s sophomore film "Annihilation," Netflix’s Super Bowl Hail Mary “The Cloverfield Paradox,” and Paul W.S. Anderson’s cult classic “Event Horizon” in this deep dive into sci-fi horror.

Aided by the insights of film critic and biology student Ciara Wardlow (at the 28:20 mark), the findings of Be Reel’s research mission include a bizarre Sam Neill performance, a few surprising thoughts on transgenic mutation, and someone's attempt to categorize all sci-fi films as “Cloverfield” movies. Regardless of who they were going in, Chance and Noah come out of this episode forever changed!

Finally, please read Ciara's terrific Hollywood Reporter essay on how "Annihilation" does the spirit of scientific exploration proud. 

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-review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

As with any proper review of a cutting-edge science fiction film, we start with Crosby, Stills & Nash. Their wistful 1969 track “Helplessly Hoping” hangs over Alex Garland’s Annihilation like a faded, radioactive rainbow. On the one hand, it’s a little too sentimental (it is very CSN) to adequately soundtrack a crew of researchers likely marching to their death. Plucked as a detail from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, though, there’s a clear thematic tie-in to the folk tune’s nursery rhyme lyrics — They are one person / They are two alone /They are three together / They are for each other — in a story in which mitosis, mutation and duplication serve as subtext that's creeping like a beautiful fungus up to the level of text. What’s more, the song’s acoustic guitar-picking affords Annihilation an earthy mood crucial to a story about the universe doing what it will.

In many ways, Annihilation’s setup is as familiar as they come. A badass scientist and ex-solider (Natalie Portman) is conscripted into government service to investigate a phenomenon no one can explain. In this case, the phenomenon is a gradually expanding area of land housed inside a translucent membrane, which the feds have termed "The Shimmer." Portman’s Lena teams with a group of women from disparate backgrounds — psychologist, physicist, paramedic, geologist — and they’ll venture inside this biosphere from which no expedition has yet returned. The first act certainly recalls Michael Crichton’s Sphere, only without the trap of explaining every inch of the phenomenon, and thank god it doesn’t involve spaceships from the future arriving in the past so people in the present can discover them. And most assuredly, every member of the expedition has some hidden motivation for being there. Lena’s is revealed fairly quickly. Her husband (Oscar Isaac) has, in fact, returned from inside The Shimmer, and he’s not exactly a carefree sailor on shore leave. 

The familiar ramp into Annihilation is a tolerable combination of slow and comforting. But once Lena’s team ventures into The Shimmer, it’s instantly gripping, not just for the danger but also for the aesthetic enticement, this world's specific visual of a confection dipped in a venom (and vice versa). Flowers grow in the shape of people; beasts that seem to bear genetic material from multiple species appear; the team discovers remains of prior explorers that should, by all rights, horrify but instead appear morbidly gorgeous, as through they’ve exploded into murals. 

As sci-fi expedition crews go, this is a particularly good one, notable for comprising only women, and all the more interesting for it. When disagreements arise about the course of the mission, no one pulls rank, and no one telegraphs the hackneyed early signs of an itchy trigger finger. The communication lines between Lena and her team remain open, even if they’re tinged with calm, carefully observed distrust. As the nominal leader, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays as eerily bored. Tessa Thompson, who I’ve been pining to see again since Creed, carries an unmissable sadness. Gina Rodriguez (of Jane The Virgin) is perhaps the biggest surprise: muscled and swaggering. Portman is compelling as always, delivering an arguably better version of Amy Adams’ performance from Arrival. There's trauma here to be sure, but Lena denies it with unbreakable focus. Finally, for being on a research mission, the group flows pretty freely through The Shimmer, and their ranks are tight enough that the movie doesn’t waste casualties on dumb decisions that only prove the environment is hostile.  

Garland’s prior film, 2015’s Ex Machina, stands as one of the all-time surprise favorites for this podcast — a movie that casts Oscar Isaac as Mark Zuckerberg-meets-Vincent Price and treats technological terror like living-room theater. Still, it’s smooth and oddly calming even while upsetting. There is a certain inevitability to the events that unfold therein, and the same is true of Annihilation, even if the new film's sensory palate stretches wider and taxes the viewer more harshly. There’s a comforting surrender in the feeling that the force in question cannot be stopped; it’s an alternate universe’s version of gravity. The Shimmer’s promise is transformation, but the promise doesn’t come with any particular malevolence or morality. Annihilation gorgeously captures what it's like to be healed by an ecosystem that may not even be aware of your consciousness, much less your troubles.

As for a final rating, I’ll delay for the full show. There’s no doubt in my mind this is a fascinating achievement by Garland. But the watchability of a movie that turns the dividing lines between terror, ecstasy and enlightenment into one giant phantasmagoria? That’s a mystery worth exploring. 

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