This week, I’ve got a two-for-one deal on movie recommendations. Both Alex Garland and Duncan Jones have new original sci-fi films (Garland’s is adapted from a novel but is changed enough to be more his own work), both of which went direct-to-Netflix in most parts of the world (Garland’s is playing in theaters in North America only). There aren’t a lot of similarities between Annihilation and Mute, so the picks they’ve inspired are separated into two lists below, which is hopefully helpful if you only see one or the other, at least for now.
I’ve also got some honorable mentions for each, but for Mute I should also note one movie that should have been recommend beforehand as homework: Moon. Jones’s debut should have been on my list of movies to watch before you go to the movies in 2018, because Mute isn’t a sequel but does take place in the same world as Moon and features some scenes directly involving its plot. So, if you haven’t yet watched Mute, see Moon first, and if you saw Mute without having seen Moon, check out the latter now.
Movies to Watch After You See Annihilation:
I try not to repeat movies on these lists, but even though it’s been less than a year since I included Stalker as a film to watch after Atomic Blonde, I can’t not recommend it again now. Annihilation bears an obvious likeness to Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi drama, a connection that’s very different from the one I highlighted last summer. Not only are Stalker and Annihilation both very loosely based on books but both are about a group of characters who enter a cordoned-off area where strange things are happening.
Stalker may not have been the only movie to influence Annihilation, but cinematographer Rob Hardy did acknowledge on Instagram that it was the only movie to be part of the “research library” for the production, “for obvious reasons too numerous to mention”:
Oddly enough, while the premises of the two movies are so similar, enough that Jeff VanderMeer‘s novel “Annihilation” was met with comparisons even before Garland made his movie, the author claims neither the Tarkovsky film nor its own source (Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s “Roadside Picnic”) was an inspiration. During a 2015 Reddit AMA, he answered two people asking about it: “Strugatsky Brothers fiction wasn’t an influence…No, Stalker isn’t. I understand why readers might think that about ‘Annihilation’ (although ‘Authority’ and ‘Acceptance’ are very different from ‘Annihilation’), but it’s not an influence.”
Southern Comfort (1981)
While another 1979 movie, Alien, is an easy recommendation with Annihilation due to the extraterrestrial horror elements of both, we move ahead two years to something directed by Alien producer Walter Hill that Garland has specifically cited as more appropriate when asked about influences. Actually, he references both this movie and another non-sci-fi effort also released in 1979: Apocalypse Now. Here’s what he told Metro when asked about Alien and, because of its similarly surreal plot and visuals, 2001: A Space Odyssey:
“I think they are present just because I have seen them. And they are films that I really, really like. Are they going to be an influence? Definitely. But one of the films I was most conscious of when making it was an old Walter Hill movie called ‘Southern Comfort’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’ Because that has a very similar structure. It is really a journey through countryside that is getting progressive more surreal and extreme as you get deeper in.”
Southern Comfort is the less-famous film, so that’s why I’m highlighting this over Apocalypse Now. Plus it seems this is the one of the two Garland thought of more. It’s about a group of National Guard soldiers who get lost in the Louisiana bayou while on routine patrol and become hunted by locals. Certainly the swamp setting is similar to parts of Garland’s movie, though you won’t find anything quite as perplexing in Hill’s film as you get throughout and especially at the end of Annihilation.
While Southern Comfort clearly informed much of Annihilation, Garland doesn’t like too much focus put on his influences or references. He told The Ringer:
“It’s all very untrustworthy…Because when people say, ‘What are your references?’ or ‘What are your influences?,’ it’s often a rationalization and it’s usually just a list of stuff you like, rather than the actual influences. And so much, much later, somebody says, ‘You know, this scene sort of reminds me of X,’ and suddenly you think, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s true, that is where it comes from, it is an influence of that thing.’ And the real influences tend to be more unconscious than conscious. But, you know, while we were making it, there was a bunch of films we’d talk about. ‘Stalker,’ ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ‘Southern Comfort,’ which provided various reference points. But the real reference points were probably a bit more obscured.”
For more on Southern Comfort, check out Rob Hunter’s showcase of the film in a column from last year.
The Abyss (1986)
My favorite description of Annihilation by a film critic is David Ehrlich’s tweeted response that it’s “like if Bjork directed a remake of The Abyss. The Bjork videos he visually references are “Hunter” and “The Gate,” neither of which she personally directed (the only video she’s helmed is for “Moon”), but his point still makes sense — another critic, Russ Fischer, earlier tweeted, “Annihilation is like an inexplicable force mutated all the Bjork videos into a single strong, unified feature,” so Ehrlich isn’t alone in his perspective.
But let’s focus on the movie part of the equation. The Abyss is James Cameron’s follow-up to Aliens (which is also a relevant honorable mention, of course) and similarly deals with a team in the confines of a ship — this time deep in the ocean rather than in outer space — encountering extraterrestrial creatures. Like Annihilation, the team here is a mix of military and scientist, as Navy SEALs and members of an underwater drilling operation investigate a mysterious accident. And the third act gets a little weird as we get a better look at the aliens, which aren’t like anything known on Earth.
Also, as I’m reminded by critic Peter Travers, The Abyss and Annihilation have another thing in common: “Not since James Cameron’s underrated 1989 gem The Abyss has a failed marriage become a microcosm of psychological terror in which each character’s capacity for good and evil is tested.”
Tonally, this sci-fi comedy is nothing like Annihilation, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Ivan Reitman-helmed movie, which is very reminiscent of his own Ghostbusters but swaps out ghosts for aliens. Actually, similar to Annihilation, it’s more than just aliens. It’s a whole aggressive spread of flora and fauna of extraterrestrial origin. In both cases, there was a meteor that crashed down to Earth carrying the material that spawns the unusual invasion. The big difference is that in Annihilation the threat corrupts plant and animal life that’s already here first. The new movie is about a cancer, while Evolution is about a virus.
Midnight Special (2016)
If there’s one 2016 sci-fi movie most people will be reminded of during Annihilation, it’s Arrival. But that’s because not enough people saw Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special. There’s admittedly not much narratively that’s similar; this film is about a boy with special powers who is traveling, on the run from a cult leader and the government, to a location of his specification. That place just so happens to be in Florida’s St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge, which was also VanderMeer’s inspiration for “Area X” in “Annihilation,” including its lighthouse. And it even turns out to be a location where there are alien structures.
The author, who dislikes Midnight Special for various other reasons, did recognize the location use. He wrote in a post on his website:
“I can’t pretend that it didn’t hurt me to see the movie makers use the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge as a backdrop for what is basically a hymn to sentimentality and senselessness, but any natural backdrop would have shown the dysfunction of the movie.
“Leaving aside the many illogical moments in the movie’s late stage, there’s a scene in which alien structures appear in the backdrop of the marsh reeds of St. Marks. It is the very exemplification of what the Eastern Curlew chapter warns against, as jarring as it is distasteful. To the filmmakers, the natural world–the wonders of that world–are just the frame for the real wonder: a vision of another wondrous other world that is straight out of 1950s science fiction, with all the blinkers that implies.”
Interesting points, but Midnight Special is still an excellent movie. So excellent that it topped my list of the best sci-fi/fantasy films of its year.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017)
This is the closest thing to a documentary pick this week, as it’s the only recommendation on either list that’s based on a true story. It’s also the only pick that is sort of alluded to in one of the movies, as Natalie Portman’s character is seen reading Rebecca Skloot’s nonfiction book of the same name. It’s about the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, the under-recognized woman whose cervical cancer cells (branded as HeLa cells) have been instrumental in and invaluable to medical research, particularly regarding cancer, since her death in 1951. The HBO movie mostly follows the modern-day tale of Skloot (played by Rose McGowan) investigating Lacks’s life, mostly with help from the woman’s daughter, Deborah (Oprah Winfrey).
Honorable Mentions for Annihilation (most of them cited by Garland): Alien, Aliens, Apocalypse Now, Arrival, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Head to the next page for the Mute recommendations!