Heavy handed horror?: Critical reviews of “Annihilation” and “Unsane” (2018)

When a film is particularly unusual, it’s very common to grasp at what’s similar to it in order to come to grips with what it is. The fairly unusual sci fi thriler “Annihilation” got this treatment, getting compared to “Under the Skin,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the original “Solaris,” as well as personal favorite “The Fountain.” One film that didn’t come up a lot was the “Ghostbusters” reboot, a film that was surprisingly polarizing and decidedly controversial, both for its female cast and its social media handling.

“Annihilation” (written and directed by Alex Garland, the “Ex Machina” dude) spins a weird tale, part cosmic horror and part philosophical sci fi drama, of Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who is volunteers to investigate the “Shimmer,” an alien world that has mysteriously sprouted up on Earth. The exploratory team–all women–includes a medic, a physicist and, perhaps tellingly, a psychologist. All are aware that no team has returned alive from the “Shimmer.” What they aren’t aware of is Lena’s own connection to the place.

So why the comparison to “Ghostbusters”? After all, “Annihilation” is an infamously obscure film, almost an art film, and “Ghostbusters” is a popcorn flavored reboot. However, for better or worse, the all female leads make it easy to draw uneasy parallels. It might not be a powerful point of entry, but it’s worth some examination.

This blog speculated on “Ghostbusters” when it was still in production, and we’re sorry to say we were right to speculate. As a horror film, it wasn’t scary; as a comedy, it fared a little better, but there was a self consciousness to it that was wholly unnecessary. There was a lot of hand holding in the script, something it didn’t need to worry about. The film’s leads were all experienced comedy alums. Rather than worry about them being funny, the script should have spent a little more time giving the film an identity outside of its cast.

Despite also featuring excellent actors, “Annihilation” did not suffer the same problems, in no small part because there is so much else going on for it than its mono-chromosome casting–psychological and philosophical themes, genuine tension, even its intriguing design. In fact, although a variety of reviewers did comment on the film’s female leads, they were just as likely to talk about its alien beauty and impenetrable plot.

“Annihilation” did very little to remind you that its cast was most female, and in doing so, avoided a lot of female stereotypes it could have walked into. It had other things to talk about, and it preferred treating its characters like people rather than props. The film even made a quick comment on it. When the team realizes it’s been codified, Lena notes it’s comprised of “all women.” The team physicist, Tessa Thompson’s Josie Radek, adds: “Scientists.” Enough said.

Another film that was as impressive in its handling of its themes as its execution was “Unsane,” director Steven Soderbergh’s psychological horror flick about a young woman (Claire Foy) who has relocated to evade a stalker. After a therapy session, she inadvertently checks herself into a mental health facility. When she tries to leave, she realizes she cannot because she signed a waiver to stay. And when she thinks she sees her stalker working there, her behavior only grows more erratic, and the staff is even less likely to let her leave.

“Unsane” was shot by Soderbergh on an iPhone 7 and edited on an app, which fits its claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere perfectly. It would have been easy for the film to be all about the technology, and indeed, a lot of critical attention was lavished on how good it looked considering its compact genesis. But critics were just as liable to latch onto the solid performance by Foy (who, believe it or not, we have talked about before–why is this article becoming an exercise in blog nostalgia?). All this is saying nothing about the film’s themes.

Mental instability and horror go hand in hand. It’s a given that you’ll touch on crazy in a psychological horror film, but it’s hardly a given that you’ll do it well. Films that try to handle mental illness sensitively, or at least intelligently, are rare–Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” perhaps stick out as movies that make an effort at authenticity. “Unsane” can join their ranks not only for looking at mental illness, but also for looking at the mental health system.

“Unsane” tackles the issue of mental illness not only from the patient’s perspective, but from a bureaucratic–and insurance–point of view as well. People do indeed get lost in the mental health system, and that can be just as serious for the afflicted as the notion that what they see might not be seen by everyone else.

But what ultimately anchors “Unsane” is that, by the end of the film, it is a well made thriller. An interesting technological experiment, of course, and an earnest effort at exploring an often overlooked element of mental illness in cinema, but an engaging thriller throughout.

If “Annihilation” curiously recalls “Ghostbusters,” then “Unsane” recalls “Get Out,” another thriller with a social conscious. The difference is that, while both films handled their social issues intelligently and organically, “Get Out” started to enter rather ridiculous territory in its third act while “Unsane” maintained its nature through its climax. Perhaps it all comes down to confidence. While all these films had their subjects in hand, “Annihilation” and “Unsane” felt certain enough in themselves to let their themes do the talking while the films played out.

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