Capsule Reviews: Black Panther; Annihilation; Red Sparrow

Quick looks at: the latest MCU blockbuster; Alex Garland’s SF-horror mindbender; Jennifer Lawrence’s spy thriller

Black Panther

Black Panther

Nothing—not even the Second Coming or a collaboration between My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-era Kanye and Kid A-era Radiohead—could live up to the hype Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was subjected to. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to. While it has the standard MCU flaws (too long, overly familiar plot, hero boring in comparison to the villain), it’s an exhilarating superhero-action spectacle.

The two secrets to its success are its fictional setting of Wakanda and the performance of Coogler’s muse, Michael B. Jordan, as antagonist N’Jadaka, a.k.a. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. The former is a vibrant Afrofuturist utopia so breathtaking that any scene not set there (such as a trip to Busan, South Korea, for a James Bond-ian caper) might as well be accompanied with a timer indicating how many more minutes we have to spend before we go back to Wakanda.

As for Jordan, a personality so charismatic he makes Tom Hiddleston look like Elmer Fudd, he brings extra dimension to a character already hailed as the MCU’s most complex and interesting villain. He owns this picture, which is nothing against this cast of thousands. A dream team like this is the only way Coogler could get away with relegating Daniel Kaluuya (Oscar nominee for Get Out), Sterling K. Brown (Emmy winner for This Is Us), and Danai “Fucking Michonne!!!!!!” Gurira to glorified bit roles. Let’s put it like this: when you have Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis in the same movie, and they’re the two actors you’re least excited to see in it, you’re in for something special.

Unfortunate, then, that the cast’s weak link is T’Challa himself, Chadwick Boseman—a decent actor in what I’ve seen him in, but here he finds himself outclassed by Jordan (no wonder “Killmonger Was Right” was such a popular meme in the week following Black Panther’s release) and Lupita Nyong’o. Then again, everyone seemed in awe of her CGI avatar in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, so maybe she’s always like that. One can hope.

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis. Directed by Ryan Coogler. 134 minutes.

Annihilation

Annihilation

Ex Machina writer/director Alex Garland takes the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, mashes it up with Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space,” and produces the most psychedelically disturbing head-trip since Under the Skin. Natalie Portman plays a solider-turned-biologist who joins a four-woman expedition into “Area X,” a patch of land taken over by a supernatural “Shimmer” from which no one except Portman’s dying husband (Oscar Isaac) has returned. Inside the Shimmer they find a crocodile with the teeth of a shark, a hideous predator that howls with a heartbreakingly familiar voice, and all other manner of creepy imagery that would haunt my nightmares if I still possessed the ability to dream. Just don’t ask me to describe what’s in the swimming pool.

Garland has received a certain amount of flak for being less interested in the particulars of character and relationships than he is in the special effects. I don’t agree; I feel the dynamic between Portman and Isaac gets the exact amount of development it deserves. (Then again, I’m not entirely sure I accept the premise that one must necessarily be psychologically broken in order to want to take a potentially one-way trip to witness the unknown—but I freely admit I’m weird.) The supposed lack of character doesn’t hurt Portman, or Isaac, or Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays the expedition leader in a career-best performance.

Awesome in the literal sense—as in, “it filled me with awe”—I can’t imagine it won’t have a high place on my “best of 2018” list at the end of the year.

Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Benedict Wong. Directed by Alex Garland. 115 minutes.

Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence reteams with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for Red Sparrow, a spy thriller that’s short on thrills or suspense but at least manages to be amusing in an over-the-top way…at least for a while. Sporting a tip-top Russian accent, Lawrence (Jen, not Francis) plays a prima ballerina who loses her livelihood in a fall but whose scummy uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts, cosplaying as the Mads Mikkelsen version of Hannibal Lecter) finds work for her as a secret-service seductress. This involves a term at what Lawrence euphemistically calls “whore school”—sadly, it’s located in Sibera, not on Mallory Archer’s Whore Island—because apparently in Russia, giving a dispassionate blow job is a trade skill you need training for. It’s the sort of place where, if one of your classmates attempted to rape you and you fought the bastard off, Charlotte Rampling would show up and chide you for prioritizing your fantasies of bourgeois virtue over the needs of the Great Russian State. (Rampling doesn’t actually say bourgeois but you can see her almost literally choking the word down.)

Unfortunately, things get a lot less interesting once the action shifts from Whore School to Belgrade, where Jen is tasked with seducing an American case officer—Joel Edgerton at his Joel Edgerton-iest—into revealing the name of his mole in the Russian government. While the second half of the film has its charm—particularly performances by Sergej Onopko as a particularly vicious cleaner and Mary-Louise Parker as a half-drunk McGuffin—most of it isn’t stuff you haven’t already seen before in Atomic Blonde, with better music, and Bill Camp instead of John Goodman. It’s the sort of movie where you can see every twist coming at least five minutes before it happens. Indeed, you should be able to figure out who Edgerton’s mole is about halfway through the film—just use the Law of Conservation of Character.

It’s not an entire waste of time, but it is the espionage-thriller equivalent of empty calories, if you catch my drift.

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Jeremy Irons. Directed by Francis Lawrence. 139 minutes.

Ex Machina

A decisive victory for cerebral, non-explosion-based science fiction in 2015.

United Kingdom. Directed by Alex Garland, 2015. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac. 108 minutes.

Ex Machina stars Domnhall Gleeson (Frank) as Caleb, a code monkey for Bluebook, a Google-in-all-but-name tech company whose flagship product is a search engine. Bluebook’s boy-wonder founder and guiding light Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (Being Llewyn Davis), flies Caleb out to his isolated complex to work on what he describes as the most important scientific breakthrough of all time. Nathan has developed an artificial intelligence, which he calls Eva (Alicia Vikander). He wants Caleb to run a Turing test on Eva, to determine if she really is conscious or is merely faking it. But it soon becomes clear that Nathan is hiding his real agenda…

Defining and exploring concepts like “humanity,” “life,” and “consciousness” are business as usual for narratives about artificial intelligence. So it’s no surprise that Ex Machina, the directorial début of screenwriter Alex Garland (best known for his work with Danny Boyle, particularly 28 Days Later), deals with these themes. But they’ve also been part of the science fiction lexicon since at least Frankenstein, which provides a layer of the story and gives Garland the chance to examine some other themes as well.

At the forefront is the relationship between the creator and the thing he creates. At certain points, Nathan seems to deliberately mis-interpret remarks Caleb makes about his seemingly god-like achievement. What’s the difference, ultimately, between being a god and merely playing at it? Another key moment comes when Caleb asks Nathan why he built what is essentially a fembot to house Eva’s intelligence. The ensuing conversation allows Garland to explore gender relations and touch on feminist themes, as does the relationship between Caleb and Eva, which starts off in the form of mild flirting which gradually transforms into sexual tension over the course of the film.

Ex Machina features excellent characterization and performances to match. I was most impressed with Vikander, who has the tricky task of juggling an outward naïveté with a broad, strong intelligence. Nathan’s arrogance makes him the obvious villain of the film, but Isaac’s performance brings out a lot of implied depth. Gleeson presents Caleb as a relatably awkward figure with a lot of book smarts but lacking in what pop-psychologists call “emotional intelligence.”

Garland’s performance as director is very strong, featuring excellent camera work and a steady, measured pace. The consistency of the mood stumbles once or twice, notably in a dance (yes, dance) sequence that turns out more comic that it probably should have. One or two plot developments are very obvious, but are more “inevitable” than “predictable.” Composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow turn in a score that perfectly accompanies the story and visuals, ominous and occasionally dissonant; Barrow’s pop-music experience, as musical mastermind behind the legendary Portishead, serves the final product very well.

All told, Ex Machina is a decisive victory for dialog-heavy, cerebral, non-explosion-based science fiction in the 21st century. I hesitate to declare it 2015’s equivalent of Under the Skin or Upstream Color, but consider it essential viewing for anyone who’s interested in SF as the cinema of ideas.

Ex Machina poster