Three weeks ago we reported (here) on the extraordinary sale of almost all foreign distribution rights to “Annihilation” to Netflix (with theatrical openings in North America and China only), and this week we get a chance to review both the film itself, which is opening, and that decision. We also get to enjoy, in an odd coincidence, a much smaller Chinese gem, “Have a Nice Day.”
Directed by Alex Garland
“Annihilation” is the second film from Alex Garland, who was widely praised for “Ex Machina,” and who had previously written such content as the screenplay for “28 Days Later,” and the novel (later adapted for film) “The Beach.” As such, it was anticipated by many and the distribution development came as both a surprise and an apparent harbinger of doom in terms of the quality of the film itself. Which perhaps help make it an equal surprise to watch.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a cellular biologist who finds herself caught up in the investigation of a strange alien phenomenon, referred to as the “shimmer,” for its iridescent expanding surface. Previous groups have entered the affected area, over the three years since its appearance, but none have managed to transmit information about the interior or survived such that they could describe it in person. She joins an all-female team that makes a last ditch attempt to invade the shimmer, prior to the point that it becomes too large to conceal and begins to consume populated areas.
One recurring theme in science fiction is the nature of alien life and whether it would look like us, be dissimilar, but relate-able and recognizable, or sufficiently dissimilar to be unfathomable or even unidentifiable. There’s also the ever present element of motive in both storytelling and action, sought by the observer. But that second part is complicated by philosophical question-begging queries like “what’s the meaning of life?” that pre-suppose that life in fact has meaning.
It’s also possible to ponder such questions as whether evolution and environmental success are best measured and observed in species or at a cellular or sub-cellular level. Are we a successful species or are we the embodiment of very successful parts?
“Annihilation” is taking on all of these topics at once. And at times it seems a little messy, a little too interested in prettily mutated flora and fauna, and then sidetracked by creature feature encounters that almost stray into “Sharknado” and, separately, classic horror territory. But at its core, it’s more philosophical, and stays fairly well on-track in that regard, despite the surface layer that risks obfuscating that depth.
Perhaps that’s the film’s biggest problem, that it plays like multiple films and stories in one. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I enjoyed it, but it does complicate matters in a manner that may have swayed early, test audiences. It feels like one of those rare mainstream-aimed films that ends up playing better with critics than with general audiences, maybe with that complex nature challenging comfort zone and favoring introspection over escapism. But it’s intriguing to see it pulled from worldwide theatres before release and then praised by reviewers.
It’s also fascinating that it won’t play in markets where it seems as though it might have fared well, or even better. Much of Western Europe is notably less overtly religious than the US and it’s a film that challenges religious beliefs in a manner that seems like it might be better received by those who view the universe in more chaotic and less purposeful terms.
If you enjoy, as I did, this story of mutating cells adapting rapidly to succeed in an unfamiliar environment, then you might also enjoy thinking of the business side of the film in the same terms as the artistic side. The distribution plan met challenges to its success and, almost without missing a beat, adapted rapidly to a changing world of viewing habits and opportunity, still succeeding in being screened and streamed. And it seems likely to happen again, as cell replication begets sell replication.
At risk of getting annihilated among the big name releases and a second powerhouse weekend from “Black Panther” is another noteworthy smaller film playing exclusively at the Tower Theatre. “Have a Nice Day,” a title that does little to convey the content of the film, is a brief, uniquely timely, animated film by Jian Liu that plays as if Quentin Tarantino had a thing for digital tablets rather than film stock. The story revolves around a bag of cash, stolen by a Chinese crime lord’s driver to finance his girlfriend’s plastic surgery in South Korea, and sought by a strangely incestuous parade of opportunists, all of whose paths or bloodlines cross amusingly frequently. The characters are simply drawn against rich backgrounds that capture the urban decay of the seemier side of modern China, with individual scenes that could be captured and framed. And the dialog is equally rich in places, with topical references that include a Donald Trump speech playing in the background, comments about the accumulated wealth of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, and with one character who answers his friend’s lament about not studying abroad in the U.K. with a dismissive comment about the pointlessness of such a choice since the Brexit vote. A couple of slightly off-beat segments interrupt what is otherwise a pretty tight 77 minute running time, in this dark tale that unexpectedly shines a bright light on the diminishing modern world.