YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Annihilation / Death of Stalin
Updated: Jul 5, 2019
by Derek May:
Director Alex Garland’s latest effort can almost be seen as a bit meta. The basic premise of the story revolves around an alien biological entity which crashes to Earth and slowly begins copying, altering, and mixing the DNA of all life within its sphere of influence, known as the “Shimmer.” I call this meta because that description not only applies to the plot, but to the movie’s very existence. It feels much like a copy of his previous work, Ex Machina, taking the tone, style, feel (it’s DNA, if you will) and making a copy that is not quite up to par with the original.
Annihilation is a gallant attempt at revisiting the dramatic science fiction tales that won Garland such acclaim over his career, but it suffers ultimately from two inherent problems: a lack of proper tension and a point of view. We follow Natalie Portman as Lena, an ex-military cellular biologist on a mission of redemption. Her story is really by far the more interesting and given the most attention. She embodies the overarching theme of life altering itself, for better or worse, from the inside—either through our self-destructive decisions or from within our cells themselves. It’s a powerful thought, and one that is doled out across characters both human and otherwise. But there doesn’t really seem to be a perspective, an opinion given. On one hand that might be the point, that much like the alien lifeform’s actions change is not always done with malice for good or bad, it simply happens, and therefore no judgements can or should be made about it. But on the other hand, this isn’t a documentary, but a drama, and as such we as an audience are interested in, and perhaps require, the storyteller’s thoughts.
This laid-back approach is what ultimately leads to the second issue: the lack of true tension. While the movie certainly does not want for moments of dread, shock, or terror, these play more like isolated moments in a horror film rather than an escalating progression of tension. The film cannot seem to decide whether it is a drama, a horror film, or an abstract observation of life. And while that might have been the intent, we know from the brilliant Ex Machina that it’s certainly possible to include it all. However, I’d argue that Annihilation falls short. The tension that builds within the story and between the characters is often released back to the start upon conclusion of a particular scene. A good example is the signpost storyline involving Lena’s interrogation into what happened with the Shimmer, a series that should include increasing frustration, demands of answers, suspicions, and instead are met with apathetic acceptance and resignation. Other times, characters make immediate reactions or decisions that would have been much better served through a more deftly handled slow burn.
That being said, the film certainly has plenty of positives. The acting is superb for the most part, with each performer buying into the director’s tone. Portman, especially, is given a chance here to stretch both her physicality and toughness as well as her well-known academic intellect, crafting a character unique to her repertoire. Others play against type, such as typical badass Tessa Thompson (Westworld, Thor: Ragnarok) as the meek, soft-spoken Josie or Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez as tough, dangerous Anya. The relatively unknown Tuva Novotny has a nice turn as Cass, so much so that it’s really a shame we aren’t given more of her. Jennifer Jason Leigh, however, comes off a bit dry, lacking the punch off the screen to really add the necessary drive and authority the story needs, and is often overshadowed by the rest of her fellow castmates. Similarly, the usually stalwart Oscar Isaac (so brilliant in Ex Machina) works his character’s otherworldly distance well, but choses one of the strangest accents I’ve heard in quite a while, diluting his performance a touch.
Ultimately, Annihilation is a mixed bag. Some strong performances within a rich, gorgeous landscape of verdant scenery and sleek special effects, and a premise that is both intriguing and demanding of introspection. However, it’s offset by a lack of focus. It suffers from too many starts and stops, releasing the needed buildup of tension. With no clear perspective, we are left ultimately with only a story fascinating to observe, but hard to feel.
YANG: DEATH OF STALIN
The latest from political satirist Armando Iannucci (of Veep and The Thick of It fame), casts a comedic pallor over a dark time with the hopes of casting parallels to our own political turmoil. But much like satires such as Idiocracy, the intent far exceeds the results.
Assembling an incredible cast of actors completely buying in to both the premise and the tone of the film, Iannucci tries to inject absurdist, black comedy in and amongst the story of Stalin’s iron-fisted last days, his final death, and the mad scramble by upper-level bureaucrats vying for the top seat. Almost no one is portrayed in any sort of positive light, which for the most part is fitting as each character (or historical figure as the case may be) unapologetically manipulates every other character to his or her own ends. Iannucci doesn’t shy away in any sense from the horror and brutality of the era, regularly showing needless arrests, graphic executions, and the rape and/or abuse of supposed “criminals” and innocents alike. It’s so brutally forthcoming that it tends to clash with the wacky, off-color humor delivered by the cast. Fans of Iannucci’s previous work may be accustomed to the tone, but newcomers may well find it somewhat disconcerting, if not distasteful.
There are certainly plenty of jokes and gags that work (“How can you run and plot at the same time!”), and the cast must really be given proper due for going in full board. Steve Buscemi in particular delivers a knockout against type as Nikita Khrushchev, quite possibly the most endearing scumbag in the bunch. On the other end of the spectrum, Simon Russell Beale peels the paint off the scenery as the lecherous and in every other way nefarious Lavrenti Beria. Beale is so smarmily arrogant you truly just love to hate him, and cheer with the rest of the cast when uppance finally comes. Rounding out the thespians are comedic powerhouses like Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine. Even more-dramatic stars such as Jason Isaacs join in, going full on London-hooligan. Most of the cast sports either extreme cockney accents or their usual benign American tones, save for Olga Kurylenko who, while being the most qualified, seems to water her own Ukrainian accent down a fair bit, but still delivers an impressive turn as a subversive pianist.
The parallels to today range from the subtle to the slap across the face with a jar of caviar. The megalomaniacal leader has surrounded himself with yes-men who either plot in preparation for his inevitable downfall or are too stupid to know they should. The comedy results mostly from their bumbling attempts to circumvent each other’s machinations, with the two most powerful (Khrushchev and Beria) driving the conflict to their final and inevitable confrontations. But worthy introspection aside, the film really fails to balance the humor with its darker backdrop. It’s never quite so absurd as to allow the audience to completely divorce itself from the historical realism, instead peppering a more uneven tone of silliness and sight gags that range anywhere from slightly whimsical or outright stupid.
But again, fans of Iannucci’s work might find more forgiveness in these extremes, and props must be given for turning the death and aftermath of one of the most brutal dictators in modern memory into a bowl of farcical goofs. Worth the watch for its originality and stupendous performances if nothing else.