What Does It All Mean???? Annihilation

Annihilation

*Major spoilers ahead!

As the saying goes, behind every great movie is great behind-the-scenes drama, and it’s no different with the new mind-twisting, sci-fi thriller Annihilation. Alex Garland, the director (Ex Machina) made the film, then screened it for Skydance’s David Ellison and his other producers.

The producers had some notes. Um, Alex, maybe you could change some things to help the story, I don’t know, make sense?

Garland refused to change anything, citing his own creative genius. As a semi-punishment and a way to cut their losses, Ellison decided that outside of the US and Canada, Annihilation isn’t getting a theatrical release, instead going straight to Netflix. So, while you can decide which side you take- business-savvy execs or creative-genius Garland- anyone who has seen this film can probably pinpoint the exact moment the executives started thinking, this might be a problem.

Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman) a biologist and former soldier, who joins a team to go into “The Shimmer,” an alien disaster zone in the swamps of Florida, where teams have gone in, and have never returned. The fim is a gorgeous, tense, slow burn of thoughtful pondering and, for the most part, a stellar use of science fiction imagery to convey a compelling human story. It has an incredible ensemble cast. I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes slow-burn science fiction. It is a film that is difficult to describe, and even more difficult to review without discussing the ending, so come back once you’ve seen the film, and let’s discuss what Annihilation may or may not be saying.

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OK, seen it? Good, let’s move on. It’s tempting to think at the end of the film that this is one of those pseudo-intellectual films where the director throws out a bunch of images and words and tries to see what sticks and if it would make an Intro to Philosophy student go hmmm, interesting. I can imagine Garland trying to explain his brilliance to Paramount producers, “IT’S SO DEEP, DUDE! It’s so deep, I don’t even know what it means. Deeper than deep, you feel me? But I don’t need answers, I’m here to ask questions, about the meaning of life and stuff. There’s so much thinking, but at the same time I have an alien mirror- dancing with Natalie Portman! And that’s what makes it deep! Why is my eye twitching?”

But here, I’ll bite, because I think there might actually be a compelling message here. So based on the final cliffhanger (is Lena a clone or not?) there are two options that relate to the recurring theme of the film.

Option One: Lena is not a clone. The clone died.

The recurring theme in the film is self-destruction. All of the team members self-destruct in some capacity, and volunteering for the trip is the ultimate act of self-destruction. This is the foil to the Shimmer itself, which annihilates, but then recreates. It is revealed that Lena is having an affair, a self-hating kind of self-destruction that is ruining her and her marriage, and her guilt is consuming her, causing her to go on the mission.

In the lighthouse, she hands the bomb to, supposedly, the clone, and the clone dies. The clone, as it burns up, touches her husband, someone else who self-destructed and the symbol of Lena’s self-destruction. When the clone dies, so does the Shimmer, the reason for the mission Lena went on to self-destruct. So Lena kills the dangerous, self-destructive part of her. And then she moves on. I like that interpretation, it’s straightforward and thematic.

Option Two: Lena is the clone, and real-Lena died.

This is the more problematic option for me, but here’s my hot take. While Lena at the end tells the interrogator (Benedict Wong) she doesn’t know why the aliens sent the Shimmer, it is implied it is because the aliens seek to annihilate humanity. They want to change it by destroying it. This aligns with Lena’s self-destruction and desire for change, so when she becomes an alien at the end, this is just a representation of what was in her all along.

This ending is the weakest part of Annihilation because science fiction and fantasy is at its best when it asks questions about humanity. Sci-fi, fantasy, genres in general, are supposed to use the unreal or exaggerated or hypothetical to answer real questions about human nature, and reveal truths about ourselves. The aliens are never really about aliens. The technology is never just about technology. The Shimmer should not actually just be about a rainbow-bubble-monster-zone.

But in the third act, the aliens and the Shimmer and the modern-dance metallic clone alien becomes the focus, not the humans. Even with my interpretations, they focus in on the sci-fi. Gimmick is a strong word, but basically I am too busy thinking about “What happened, what did the alien do?” and not enough about “What does the alien mean? What is this trying to reveal about humanity? About humans? Did I see truth reflected?”

So in that case, Annihilation does not use its premise to its strength. Instead, it feels self-indulgent at times, wanting to mull over its twists and turns, without using that to say anything. Yet I think any flaws in the ending are saved by the first two acts, which do focus in on the characters and their interactions, developments, and changes. It builds to say something about humanity. The sci-fi elements are an exciting bonus, but are not the point, and that is why Annihilation, on a whole, ends up working as a great film.

-Madeleine D

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Go See it! Black Panther

Black_Panther

Should wealthy and advanced countries share their resources with the world? Are there any advantages to isolationism? What responsibility does Africa have to the black diaspora? What responsibilities does the black diaspora have to Africa? Do world superpowers have to be the world’s police too? Should one’s loyalties be to leaders or to their positions?

These are the ideas wrestled with in Black Panther, which besides being a political drama is also the story of a king who wears a bulletproof catsuit and was in the movie where the Avengers fought each other in an airport parking lot.

Yes, Black Panther has been poised to stand apart from the other Marvel movies, and not just because this is the studio’s first superhero movie (its 18th movie overall) made with a black lead. The film is directed by auteur Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and has an almost all-black cast, with stars like Oscar-winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker, as well as Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, and this year’s Oscar-nominated Daniel Kaluuya. Black Panther comes from a rich comic book history beginning in the Civil Rights Era, and many people are counting on it to be a new trailblazing film, in the vein of last year’s Wonder Woman. It aims high in its entertainment, and its ideas.

So is it as good as all the hype?

Short answer: Yes.

This is a visually stunning movie. The acting is excellent. The attention to detail, particularly in the costumes, is amazing. The film is big and mythic in proportions, but has intimate moments dedicated to character building. The worldbuilding for T’Challa’s country of Wakanda is comparable to Middle Earth.

Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), aka King T’Challa, is the first Marvel hero I would actually trust to lead. The majority of Marvel heroes, from Tony Stark to Star Lord, are varying levels of man-children, but T’Challa is a real leader and role model, full of stoic strength and dignity. He surrounds himself with equally good people, and what makes him such a great leader is that he listens to those around him. I said in my Thor Ragnarok review that all the Marvel heroes were starting to meld together, but T’Challa and his supporting characters all stand as unique and three-dimensional.

I only have two mild critiques. First, is that T’Challa himself doesn’t have a character arc. He begins as a great man and continues to be a great king. He doubts himself briefly, but that disappears. Most of the conflict in the film isn’t because anyone is doubting he would be a good leader. His real arc, going from being blinded by vengeance to showing mercy, was in Civil War, which wasn’t even his movie.

Instead, Black Panther is much more about Wakanda then it is about T’Challa, so Wakanda goes through a character arc, and he just represents it. That makes it sometimes feel like Black Panther is the sequel to half of an origin story we’ve never seen.

But that isn’t really a critique considering how important Wakanda is, and how compelling of a character this setting makes itself out to be. I can’t really do justice to the fictional country here, but I’ve learned a lot by reading what it means to others (I highly recommend this article to learn more about what Black Panther and Wakanda represent for many people: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/black-panther-s-glorious-depiction-wakanda-envisions-africa-black-dreams-ncna849016).

The second critique is that the film does not feel like a Marvel movie. That works well in this case, but there are moments within the film where it seemingly remembers it is a Marvel movie, and then does a Marvel-y thing that feels out of place. I would almost prefer if it hadn’t been associated with Marvel at all, and did not feel like it had to have any action sequences or jokes or any outside references.

However, those moments are few and few between, and don’t distract from the integrity of the film. And in case you’re wondering if this film is just a political history lesson, don’t worry. It’s an extremely entertaining film. It will also just happen to make you think! And isn’t that the best of both worlds?

But ultimately, this film wouldn’t have been made if it weren’t a Marvel movie. Not just because Black Panther is a Marvel comics property, but because Marvel and Disney are the only studios that are either able or willing to take this risk. Maybe they didn’t need to make ten movies starring a white guy named Chris before doing this film, but we’re here now. That’s why I get frustrated when prestigious directors bad mouth superhero films. With all due respect, they are by and large not making the films main audiences- and particularly audiences of color- want and need to see.

Black Panther isn’t just an example of the potential of blockbuster and big-studio successes, but also an example of why superhero movies are important. This is a genre, a space, like ancient mythology, that has the ability to be paired with any other genre to create new and original stories. Logan, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and The Dark Knight are all based in comic books, but all tell different stories, create different worlds, and say different things. As long as filmmakers keep pushing for new ways to tell these stories, the superhero boom isn’t going away, and until everybody gets to see themselves as a hero on screen, I don’t think it should.

I don’t know the full effect Black Panther will have on audiences, or comic book readers who have been waiting to see Wakanda in big screen glory. But I do know that it is a great film, and everyone should see it.

-Madeleine D

Unrest, Unfair, Unconvincing: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

3 billboards

Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a story about angry, grief-stricken Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). Her daughter Angela was murdered, and the police have seemingly dropped the case. The officers on the case are Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Willoughby is a well-meaning cop, dying of cancer, and Dixon is a dumb, racist, temperamental, corrupt cop. Mildred rents out three billboards that send a loud and clear message:

-Raped while dying

-And still no arrests?

-How come, Chief Willoughby?

This film has been getting critical acclaim and is leading the awards season, so I would like to raise three billboards of my own:

-7 Oscar Nominations.

-Best Screenplay and Picture?

-How come, Academy?

The biggest criticism of Three Billboards has been its treatment of race. Several people throughout the film explain that Dixon is racist and has a history of torturing the people of color in Ebbing. He uses the n-word, makes threats, and this is all used to establish him as a terrible man. Our (good?) police chief, Willoughby, explains not-so-helpfully why he keeps him on the force- “”You get rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the f-gs.”

Once Dixon needs to be redeemed through, his racism, which he never shows remorse for or makes efforts to change, is completely forgotten about. It’s treated, as Insider’s Jacob Shamsian notes, as “a character quirk.”

I don’t doubt that there are cops who feel this way, and it’s not that a movie that is supposedly about redemption and empathy and human complexity can’t redeem a despicable person. That’s what I believe we have to do in real life. But the redemptive arc for Dixon is shallow, unfulfilled, and he never seems remorseful. Discussing institutional racism in your movie is an admirable thing to do if you’re going to treat it with weight and actually have thoughts about it. But British director McDonagh is much more interested in throwing sensitive topics around as coloring to his black-and-white sketch of what he believes is middle-America, and it’s utterly unconvincing and disgustingly manipulative.

Another example- Mildred’s black friend, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested by Dixon to spite Mildred, and she isn’t released until the end of the film, and this is… cool with everyone? Not talked about? That’s not a commentary on racism, that’s terrible writing and using black characters for the advancement of white ones.

In my screenwriting class, my teacher tells us to make sure every scene has conflict, but that doesn’t mean “every scene has to have a screaming match.” Three Billboards is very much ready to have a screaming match, or an explosion, torture, domestic abuse, burning someone alive, or horrific beating in every scene. Almost every single scene escalates to 100, leaving no room to breathe or think. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson do a fine job with their roles, but all of the things they are asked to do are so actor-y, so unnatural, and so over-the-top that I honestly don’t think they should have been nominated at all. I never had to read Frances McDormand’s face to figure out what she was feeling, she was either saying it or destroying something.

I recently watched Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It’s a masterpiece, and it also deals with the escalation of anger. It and Three Billboards are very different films, but what Do the Right Thing does that Three Billboards doesn’t do is spend the majority of the film building characters and setting up the tension, before making the violence climax and thus actually hurt. Watching the riot in that film feels like a gut punch. Three Billboards is constantly pummeling me, so nothing feels like anything after a while.

I never felt like any of the characters were real. I could not imagine any of the characters in situations beyond the ones they were in. I suppose that this could be interpreted as a hyper-reality, like the film is becoming what grief and anger feels like. But it’s not presented that way. This is portrayed as a story where someone really does all of these things.

It’s a film being billed as a movie for our divided times. But as I see it, it’s a harmful one. It tells you your anger is justified. And true, a lot of anger is, and Mildred’s certainly is. But there are no repercussions for the actions she or Dixon takes because of their anger. They suffer indirectly- Mildred is still miserable and Dixon gets burned because of Mildred’s attack on the police station, but they are never punished for their actions. They never see repercussions. They are the only ones that affect each other, even though their villainous acts affect everyone else.

Anger isn’t the problem, it’s what you do with it, and all the characters in the film act in an evil way with it, and those actions are excused. Telling people they can be angry and do whatever they want with that anger is a dangerous message. Three Billboards isn’t just a movie about mean people. It’s a mean movie, one that wants to say a lot of important things but doesn’t have the heart to actually finish the job.

-Madeleine D

Meeting Laura Linney

Laura Linney

On Friday, February 2nd, I had the opportunity and privilege to help moderate a panel for a student discussion with actress Laura Linney, who was in Tulsa to speak at the Performing Arts Center for Tulsa Town Hall. Laura Linney has done it all- theater, film, and television. She’s been nominated for three Academy Awards, four Tonys, and she has won four Primetime Emmys, two Golden Globes, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. She studied at Julliard and began her film career in the early 1990s. Her most recent work is her role on Netflix’s Ozark, opposite Jason Bateman. She is currently filming season two of that show.

When she first entered the room before the panel began, she greeted each of us moderators individually, took a selfie with my class, and talked to my teacher. She was engaging and thoughtful. When my fellow moderator and classmate Charlotte asked her at the end of the panel, “Would you be my adopted mom?” Ms. Linney said yes.

Laura Linney selfie

During the panel she was asked questions about being a woman in Hollywood, the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement, how she’s kept a long and steady career, the differences between working in theater, film, and television, and what attracts her to different roles.

She spoke honestly about the difficulties of Hollywood, and advised all the young women in the room to bond together, as working together makes you stronger. She explained her criteria for picking roles- good writing, a director she could learn from, and a story she felt was necessary to tell. She told us about working with Clint Eastwood three times and things she had learned from him about letting scenes act themselves out. She spoke about the different demands of different mediums, and how she balances being an introvert with her work.

Laura Linney panel

Moderating the panel. Left to right: C.S., Me, O.H., Laura Linney

 

After the student panel, we got to see her give her Town Hall speech to a full crowd in the main PAC auditorium. Her speech was about how to infuse creativity into every part of your life. My favorite thing she discussed was the need for an “Art Doctor,” someone who could prescribe to you a piece of art for every emotion or dilemma you may have. Feeling blue? Listen to this. Need some philosophical ponderings? Read this. Happy? Rejoice by watching this.

I would say, after needing some artistic inspiration, speaking to Laura Linney was just what the doctor ordered.

-Madeleine D

Laura Linney & me