Ex Machina


Science fiction isn’t my favorite genre, but one must be open-minded about art. You never know what may end up being a great film. 2014’s Ex Machina was a film that I assumed I’d dislike, and I actually ended up really enjoying it. When I learned Annihilation not only featured one of my favorite actresses in Natalie Portman, but also that Ex Machina’s director Alex Garland was responsible, I was convinced it was worthy of a Movie Pass swipe.

Portman (Jackie) stars as Lena, a biologist and professor recently widowed. Or is she? Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) has been missing in action for over a year. He never returned from a recon mission that took him inside of a mysterious visible, moving force field dubbed the “shimmer.” Meanwhile, Lena is stuck in a holding pattern, going through the motions of daily life, continuing to teach. But her grief persists, compounded by a lack of closure. Then, one day, Kane reappears. It’s apparent that something is different about him now, from the vacant look in his eyes to the decreased cognition. Eventually he has to be rushed in for medical treatment, quarantined in a nearby government facility. There Lena encounters a team of women, the latest doomed collective to be sent on a virtual suicide mission inside the shimmer. Lead by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Amityville: The Awakening), the small band includes scientists and rescue personnel.

The bulk of the film is told in extended flashback. Lena and Dr. Ventress’ team enter the shimmer, and while five enter, it’s not clear that all five will make it out. We switch back and forth between the present, where Lena is recalling what happened inside the shimmer, and their actual time inside. The shimmer covers a wide, remote area and has moved slowly over time, drifting closer to population centers. Within its depths a unique ecosystem has developed, giving rise to beautiful foliage but also deadly hybrid creatures. Lena is the central figure of the story, and it is through her perspective that most of the action is filtered. Despite the fragility brought on by recent events, she’s surprisingly courageous within the shimmer, boldly facing unknown dangers, including bizarre creatures and supernatural energy. She starts off well with the others at first, but camaraderie gives way to fear and mistrust as they face one threat after another. Undeterred, Lena persists in hopes of getting answers about what happened to her husband.

Annihilation was an okay movie, but that’s the extent of any praise. Although the shimmer’s premise allowed for some cool visual elements and fantasy-driven concepts, the story didn’t have a satisfying resolution. During one weird scene, I took a moment to survey the faces of those around me, to see if they were exasperated, engrossed, or disengaged all together. They seemed to be enjoying it, so perhaps I was missing something. Science fiction is unconstrained by convention, and I think its freedom in storytelling sometimes results in suspect plot development. The performances were more than adequate, and I enjoy both Portman and Issac in mostly everything. Moreover, I was glad to see Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) continuing her recent campaign of worthy notches  – but the film felt unremarkable. Perhaps more suited for sci-fi enthusiasts, it fell flat for me. Don’t waste your time unless you’re a fan of the genre.

Grade: C

The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) is at an interesting stage of his career. He’s been turning in critically acclaimed performances since 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, with no obvious missteps in his impressive catalogue. He has been nominated for an Academy Award for acting four times, though he has never taken home a golden statue. It’s becoming somewhat of a running joke that he hasn’t won; and it shouldn’t be. After viewing The Revenant, I can say that he’s turned in arguably the performance of his career, and hopefully that elusive award is within his grasp.

DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a weather-beaten trapper traversing the brutal frontier of 1820’s Midwestern America. We meet Glass and his fellow men as they fend off an attack from Native Americans, their party whittled down to just over a dozen men. This early scene sets the tone, as the men are equally vulnerable to both the harsh landscape and its native inhabitants. Glass faces an early challenge from fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road), who doubts his navigational abilities and questions his leadership quite disrespectfully. He insults Glass and his teenaged son Hawk (newcomer Forrest Goodluck), whose Pawnee mother was murdered when he was just a boy. Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina) acts as peacemaker, leading the decimated outfit while deferring to Glass as the more seasoned frontiersman.

While exploring the dense forest, Glass spies a pair of bear cubs. The mother isn’t far behind, and before he can fire a musket, she pounces viciously, instinctively protecting her young. The relentless grizzly slings a helpless Glass to and fro, mauling him mercilessly. This is the scene you’ve probably heard about, and it was incredible. Director Alejandro Inarritu (Birdman, 21 Grams) had me riveted, effectively employing creative camera angles and use of sound to transport the viewer alongside DiCaprio. We see, hear and feel what he does. As the beast heaves in and out the camera lens fogs with condensation, the fear primal and palpable.

After surviving the brutal attack, Glass’ men stitch him up as best they can. Realizing it’s impossible to carry him on a makeshift stretcher while climbing a steep, snowy mountain ridge, they agree that Hawk, Fitzgerald and a young trapper named Bridger (Will Poulter, The Maze Runner) will stay behind with the ailing Glass.  I don’t want to reveal too many spoilers, but if you simply consult the definition of revenant, you can deduce what happens when Fitzgerald is left to care for Glass. According to Merriam Webster, a revenant is one that returns after death or a long absence.

Inarritu has crafted a stunning film.  He extracted every ounce of ability from DiCaprio, down to the bone marrow. I’ve never seen an actor give so much of his body to a performance. Much in the way a prizefighter gives his body to his craft, DiCaprio completely immersed himself in the role of Hugh Glass. He was tender, vulnerable, physically and emotionally spent under the sheer weight of what he was called to do. He caught the flu several times while filming, consumed raw bison liver, and slept in an animal carcass. We’re accustomed to seeing actors transform themselves physically for roles, but this was different. DiCaprio didn’t alter his physique, but he endured tremendous physical hardship, and his performance was a revelation.

The landscape was ironically beautiful yet brutal, a brilliant juxtaposition Inarritu depicted masterfully. In one scene the snow swirled like interplanetary dust, one breathtaking scene of many. Moreover, I don’t usually pay attention to sound in film, but here it added to an overall feeling of visceral authenticity. Glass faced deadly internal and external conflict, battling the elements, animals and indigenous people alike. Inarritu harkened back to a period in American history influenced by the transcendentalism espoused by the likes of Thoreau and Emerson, capturing an aesthetic that belied the occasionally spiritual relationship between man and nature.  I could blather indefinitely about this film, a work of art. The Revenant is the first must-see film of 2016. Grade: A