Annihilation Is Challenging, Otherworldly Science Fiction

Reviews of "Annihilation" and "Mute," plus local movie news and notes.

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I remember being surprised when some moviegoers found “Interstellar” and “Arrival,” both of which I loved, hard to follow or obtuse. While there are undoubtedly some big ideas in those movies, I found their stories to be straightforward enough.

“Annihilation” makes those two look about as complicated as an episode of “Lassie.”

The new scifi epic from writer/director Alex Garland (adapting the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer), “Annihilation” follows a group of scientists as they investigate a spatial anomaly dubbed The Shimmer. A few years back, things got weird in the vicinity of an abandoned lighthouse; as the area of the aberration started to grow, the government began sending in military groups.

Things didn’t go well for those teams.

The first crews were all military; our new team is made up of scientists. The team leader is played by the excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh, while Natalie Portman’s biologist serves as the film’s protagonist. Both women give stellar turns, and the rest of the team — played by Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny — more than keep up.

Garland, who previously wrote and directed the scifi thriller “Ex Machina,” demonstrated there that he knew his way around a tense, speculative plot. In “Annihilation,” he adds visual flair; where “Ex Machina” was stark, “Annihilation” is bright with otherworldly detail and nightmarish terrors.

And yes, it does eventually take a turn for the more outlandishly supernatural — or, perhaps I should say, supernormal. This will be the point that undoubtedly loses some viewers, but such left turns are right up my alley, so I loved it.

You’ll need to get to the ending (and through some moments of sheer terror) to see how you feel about that turn, though, and I hope that you do. While there are some false steps here and there, that’s a natural side effect of making a wildly ambitious film. “Annihilation” is wildly ambitious — and a tremendous, uncanny work of art.

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This riches keep coming for science fiction fans this weekend, as a high-profile feature debuts on Netflix today as well. “Mute,” from “Moon” director Duncan Jones, stars Alexander Skarsgård as Leo, a man searching for his missing girlfriend in a semi-dystopian Berlin.

Leo was rendered mute by an injury as a child; that means a lot of silent, wide-eyed journeys down back alleys and into the seedy underbelly of a future that clearly takes its cues from “Blade Runner.” (In fact, “Mute” feels more like a “Blade Runner” sequel than “Blade Runner 2049.”) Leo’s adoring partner, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), has disappeared after some run-ins with well-connected goons; meanwhile, Leo seems to be running afoul of a low-level thug (Paul Rudd) trying to escape Germany.

“Mute” is dark as pitch, going places that many would prefer to avoid and showing no mercy to its characters or its audience. It’s certainly more than a bit indulgent and moves at an awkward gait, but it’s excellent to see Jones back on track after the high-budget mess of “Warcraft” in 2016. “Annihilation” should be your main course this weekend, but “Mute” is a fine dessert.

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Well, the interregnum didn’t last long: Dormont’s Hollywood Theater is scheduled to reopen this weekend after only a couple of dark weeks. The nonprofit Friends of the Hollywood Theater’s campaign to remain in control of the historic building fizzled after an eviction notice from the building’s owners; new managers the Theater Historical Society moved in immediately.

The opening-day film: Current box-office champ “Black Panther,” in keeping with THS’s stated goal of blending mainstream fare with occasional special programming. (I can’t find a new website for the theater; I suggest Googling showtimes.)

In a positive sign for the new Hollywood, the “Rocky Horror” crew has elected to stay, and longtime shadowcast the Junior Chamber of Commerce Players will host a screening of the cult classic tomorrow night.

As for the Friends of the Hollywood — they’ll still be hosting a scheduled appearance from found-footage creators Everything is Terrible next week, but at the Carnegie Stage rather than the Hollywood Theater.

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The Montage: The second annual Black Bottom Film Festival runs today through Sunday at the August Wilson Center. Feature presentations include an appearance by April Reign — the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite movement — a screening of the funk documentary “Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different” and more. Full-weekend and single-day passes are available, and full schedules of film screenings and events have been posted … The independent feature A Wish for Giants is on a roadshow tour of the region, with a screening at the Parkway Theater this Saturday night … Row House Cinema is getting in on the Oscar Shorts screenings, giving over all of Oscar Sunday — March 4, if you don’t have it marked on your calendars — to the short-film nominees, as part of its 2017 Favorites week.

Categories: Sean Collier’s Popcorn for Dinner