Tag Archives: science

NETFLIX REVIEW: Annihilation – future cult classic or subpar sci-fi?

A meteorite streaks past the camera. It carries some kind of alien mineral, and it ain’t Vibranium. It smashes into a lighthouse: the invasion of planet Earth has begun.

Ground Zero is covered by an iridescent dome – like a soap bubble, or a gigantic blister. They call it ‘the Shimmer’. Inside, communications fail, and those who enter don’t return. The government are keeping it top secret, but not for long; the phenomenon is expanding, and will eventually swallow up whole cities and states…

‘Annihilation’ started life as the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘weird fiction’ Southern Reach trilogy, where a nameless four-woman crew venture into the unknown Area X. One, a perpetual student and passionate observer of tide pools known only as “the biologist”, served as narrator.

In Alex Garland’s adaptation, the biologist – now Lena – is played by a characteristically poised Natalie Portman as an ex-military John Hopkins professor. Flashbacks reveal her cheating on her angelic-looking husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) with Daniel (Interstellar’s David Gyasi).

We see Lena Portmansplaining cellular senescence, AKA aging, to Kane. They playfully argue over whether God can make mistakes, and discuss the unusual ‘silence’ around Kane’s deployment. Kane tenderly says they will be under the same stars, but Lena mocks the idea of pining for her husband.

Kane goes MIA, before materializing a year later at their home, clearly unwell. The couple are ambushed and held in a facility where Lena meets creepy wierdo Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains that Kane volunteered for and escaped the Shimmer, but is now in multi-organ failure.

With Oscar Isaac on a ventilator, a guilt-wracked Lena joins Ventress on the next Shimmer trip. The rest of their team are all damaged in different ways: an unkempt Tessa Thompson is self-harming physicist Josie, Gina Rodriguez is recovering addict Anya, while geologist Cass is a grieving mother. “We’re all damaged goods here,” she explains.

Inside the Shimmer, radio waves are scrambled, and time is distorted. DNA gets reshuffled and recombined; flowers twist into the human form, deer have tree branches, alligators have shark teeth.

“The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything,” realizes Josie. When Cass is killed by a mutant bear, its jaws open and her voice screams for help. Josie doesn’t want terror to be her surviving fragment, so she walks peacefully into the flower mannequin forest, with shoots and buds already sprouting from her self-harm scars.

Yuk. The thought of being broken down and incorporated into this new ecosystem proves grotesque. Ventress rages that it feels like the onset of dementia – although dying of cancer and resigned to her fate, she wants to face the alien entity while still herself.

Is Annihilation, therefore, about how we accept the inevitable? Some saw it as a movie about cancer, or interpreted the Shimmer as a manifestation of Lena’s guilt. To others it’s depression, or Pokémon. Garland, meanwhile, said he was going for something on a theme of self destructiveness.

annihilation swimming pool

F U Humanity!!

OK, but this stupid thing invaded us. And although Lena believes the organism doesn’t ‘want’ anything, it’s hard not to take it personally; there’s something about the fruiting corpse in the swimming pool and the artfully arranged skeletons that feel like they sprung from the imagination of a serial killer on NBC’s late, lamented Hannibal.

Despite the triumph of Ex Machina, Paramount had little faith in Annihilation; international rights went to Netflix. American audiences – who had the benefit of experiencing this admittedly visually and aurally accomplished movie on a cinema screen – only gave it a ‘C’ CinemaScore.

Maybe it’s because of the incoherent narrative. Some claim to enjoy the fact that it “doesn’t give us all the answers”. Others might point to the umpteen articles ‘unpacking’ the movie as a sign that it falls back on making audiences feel stupid for finding it all a bit of a muddle.

FILM REVIEW: Alien: Covenant

There are probably certain things you just know about yourself – like whether or not you’d be cut out for daring interplanetary exploration. Personally, I can confidently say I wouldn’t be much good.

However, in this sci-fi franchise, I’d be well-qualified. From the hardscrabble marines of Aliens to the inept scientists of Prometheus, Xenomorph Expedition’s workforce aren’t exactly first draft.

This brings us to the Covenant, a beautiful hunk of a ship housing a crew of married couples, jolted out of hypersleep by a neutrino burst. (Yes I’m totally going to pretend I know what that is.) Playing nursemaid is Walter (Michael Fassbender), the nice android brother/updated model to Prometheus’ smarmy malcontent David.

Now, I loved Prometheus. I loved David (the crew were so stupid and hostile he had to murder them) and sole David survivor Shaw (Noomi Rapace); I loved the blueness, and the weirdness of it. I was probably alone in the universe in just wanting Prometheus 2: More Dodgy Philosophizing.

But we’ve got Covenant, and its newly-awakened crew, who are lured from their target planet by an eerie transmission of Shaw singing John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. Upon hearing her, I realized I didn’t care about these new Covenant losers, and I never would.

The only person against deviating from their planned course is the Ripley-esque Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Widowed when Captain James Franco got Anakin Skywalker’d in his malfunctioning sleep pod, she’s now second-in-command to Billy Crudup’s wimpy Captain Arm (OK it’s Oram, but it sounded like they were saying ‘arm’).

Daniels and Arm lead some of the other marrieds and a security team to explore this strange new world, and despite knowing nothing about it, they’re soon moaning and stopping for cigarette breaks like it’s a routine rekkie.

Luckily David (minus Shaw – sob!) is back, so ha-ha for our marrieds! Bye, suckers! David’s been busy experimenting with the Engineer’s black goo, which infects the Covenant idiots, who are so rubbish with firearms they shoot up their own landing craft.

We know where this sequel-prequel is headed: a CGI face-off with an Xenomorph in the halls of the Covenant. It’s Aliens, minus the snappy dialogue and (my earlier disrespect notwithstanding) the snappy supporting cast.

People who didn’t like Prometheus (there were a fair few) have got their way: Alien Covenant is a return to typical, hardcore blockbuster terrain. Please send it back to a permanent cryo-sleep. zzzz

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Mini reviews: My favourite space heroines!

[*Update 20/10/16* I’m hoping more readers will find this post as we approach the release of Rogue One, which, like The Force Awakens, will star another female lead. Will Jyn Erso be as big a success as Daisy Ridley’s Rey?]

The Force Awakens is released this week!

And the latest installment of Star Wars looks set to have more active and intriguing female characters than either the originals or the prequels. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o and Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie will appear alongside the female lead, newcomer Daisy Ridley.

The production has been shrouded in secrecy, so little is known about their roles – but in honour of The Force Awakens, here are my favourite movies set among the stars, and the heroines they feature…

Prometheus (2012) 

It probably helps that I’m no scientist.

In fact, I was terrified of the school lab because of all the stories other pupils told me about accidental immolation and experiments gone wrong. Besides, the teacher was as scary as the Engineer Noomi Rapace tangles with in this Alien prequel.

Perhaps because of my unscientific bent, I can ignore some of the sillier twists, errors and logical issues in Prometheus.

I mean, I can appreciate that having an 8ft alien land on your abdomen after you’ve had a caesarean might hurt a bit more than it seems to here. Or that hand-to-hand combat, rappelling and running might be a tad impossible after surgery.

But while Rapace’s archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw isn’t as hard-as-nails as Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley (the “no weapons” stance to exploring an alien planet is annoying), she is a woman of epic determination.

She leads an expedition of doomed idiots to answer the biggest question of all: Why are we here?

Once the feeble team have been picked off, she dusts herself down and as the only mortal survivor of Prometheus she continues her quest for knowledge and truth.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Danish pastry hair buns debuted by Leia in Star Wars and the metal bikini she wore in Jedi are iconic. But I’ve always admired the white jumpsuit and loopy-braid hairdo combo she showcased on Bespin’s Cloud City, complete with blaster.

It’s a practical but chic get-up for her roles as soldier, spy, royal and diplomat.

Despite Carrie Fisher’s recent admission that she was, in fact, higher than the stars when she filmed Empire, Leia is at her best in this movie.

In the first film she’s a brash rebel who witnesses her entire home planet destroyed. By the final film, although still committed to her cause, she appears softer – much like Padme in Revenge of the Sith.

In Empire she is as combative as Han Solo, while starting to show actual feelings for the scene-stealing smuggler.

And given what we’ve been told about the development of the Star Wars plot, there are some uncertain nods to her true identity and origins.

While her brother has a reputation as one of cinema’s greatest whiners, and there are real moments where it looks like the men might not make it, there’s never any doubt Leia is a survivor.

Gravity (2013)

Watching Sandra Bullock spin through space, I unfortunately discovered that Gravity triggers vertigo, so it’s definitely not one I can go back to watch again and again.

Balance issues aside, this is a beautiful and thoughtful drama. Given the hype, the seven Oscars, and the theme of sheer adversity, I wasn’t expecting the movie to be so tender.

Grief-stricken following the loss of her young daughter, newbie astronaut Dr Ryan Stone finds herself stranded after debris wrecks her space shuttle. She must contend with a dwindling air supply, no communications with mission control and the loss of George Clooney.

Gravity is not sci-fi, and the fact that Stone is from our own present-day earth with our real technological limits makes her even more engaging than a character in a futuristic or fantastical setting.

Stone is self-reliant. She is human. She hallucinates and loses the will to live – and then summons it again.

The movie’s message is never give up, and that through perseverance you can achieve the impossible.