Heady SciFi + Fun Comedy in Theaters this Weekend
What a remarkable February. In what is traditionally a dumping ground month we have been gifted with not only the best superhero film in years—perhaps ever—but a heady SciFi tale from a burgeoning master of the genre. Plus a pretty decent comedy and an absorbing German import. And if that’s not your bag, you can just go see Black Panther again. Feels like Christmas!
Alex Garland’s work as both a writer (28 Days Later…, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) and a writer/director (Ex Machina) has shown a visionary talent for molding the other-worldly and the familiar. Annihilation unveils Garland at his most existential, becoming an utterly absorbing sci-fi thriller where each answer begs more questions.
A strange force of nature dubbed “The Shimmer” has enveloped the land near a remote lighthouse, and is spreading. Years of expeditions inside it have yielded only missing persons – including Kane (Oscar Issac). When Kane suddenly returns home and almost immediately falls prey to a life-threatening illness, his wife Lena (Natalie Portman, perfectly nailing a desperate curiosity) is detained for questioning by the military.
Lena, a biology professor with years of military training, volunteers to join the new, all-female exhibition into “Area X,” hoping to find any shred of information that could save her husband’s life.
Adapting the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy,” Garland has found a perfect scratch for his psychological itch.
Garland builds the film in wonderful symmetry with the hybrid life forms influenced by The Shimmer. Taking root as a strange mystery, it offers satisfying surprises amid an ambitious narrative flow full of intermittent tension, scares, and blood – and a constant sense of wonder.
Just his second feature as a director, Annihilation proves Ex Machina was no fluke. Garland is pondering similar themes—creation, self-destruction, extinction—on an even deeper level, streamlining the source material into an Earthbound cousin to 2001.
Utilizing wonderfully strategic splashes of color, and a shifting timeline that drops purposeful breadcrumbs, Garland gives us a mystifying new world from the comforts of our own. Annihilation is the work of a top-tier genre filmmaker, and a challenging journey offering many rewards for those with no appetite for spoon feedings.
Nobody does dry, self-deprecating humor as well as Jason Bateman. He’s such a natural as the put-upon husband/brother at the center of the Game Night tension, he becomes the action/comedy’s effortless center of gravity.
And the way this story orbits, circles back, veers around and comes back again, gravity is important.
Bateman plays Max who, with his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams), hosts a weekly game night at his house. But Max’s super cool brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) wants to host this week, and Max’s creepy neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons, eerily perfect) wants to come. Well, things are spinning out of control, aren’t they?
A tight script by Mark Perez gives a game cast (see what I did there?) plenty of opportunity to riff on each other and nerd up the place. The chemistry onscreen, particularly between couples—each of which is given the chance to create believable unions—elevates the hijinks.
The easy humor spilling from this cast pulls the film away from absurd comedy and turns it into something more comfortable. Because, even though there may or may not (or may?) have been a kidnapping and they may or may not (or may?) be making things worse, they have actually trained for this moment for years.
It’s called teamwork.
Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Vacation) keep the action low key. This allows the entire effort to indulge in the “so this is happening right now, then? Ok, let’s deal with that” kind of humor that is so characteristically Bateman. The comedy is upbeat and fun (though sometimes surprisingly violent) and true to the characters and their relationships.
It’s consistently fun and ultimately forgettable. Like a game night.
In the Fade
Director Fatih Akin returns to an overtly political palette with In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts), and leans on a powerhouse lead performance from Diane Kruger to keep the film above standard thriller fare.
Kruger is Katja, a German woman whose Turkish husband, Nuri, (Numan Acar) has rehabilitated himself after a stint in prison for dealing drugs.
On the way to meet a friend one morning, Katja visits Nuri’s office to drop off their young son, and never sees them alive again. They are the only casualties in what appears to be a targeted homemade bombing, and Katja’s recollections of a random woman she saw outside Nuri’s office become key in the trial of a neo-Nazi couple accused of the murders.
Most of In the Fade is anchored in a somber look at the toll of xenophobic hate, where human souls can come to be viewed as “no longer people.”
As a grieving mother looking for justice, Kruger delivers a masterful turn, making the weight of emotional turmoil feel achingly real. Katja struggles to exist in the haze of her heartbreak, juggling grief, bickering family members and a growing need for revenge. Kruger draws us in immediately, so much so that we feel the release when her quiet resolve finally erupts in emotional outburst.
The film’s third act, “The Sea,” has trouble delivering on the promise of all that Akin has cultivated in the first two (“The Family” and “Justice”). Events begin to follow a more conventional path, and though the outcome is striking, anyone familiar with Hollywood thrillers may find the narrative choices curious.
Also opening in Columbus:
- Beast of Burden (NR)
- Every Day (PG-13)
- The Housemaid (NR)
- Operation Red Sea (NR)
Reviews with help from George Wolf.