Annihilation” and the demise of British film criticism


Aside from the abort­ed first attempt at an Irish Film Board in the 1980s, for most of the 20thcen­tu­ry there was no indige­nous film indus­try in Ire­land. So when the Film Board was re-estab­lished in 1992, and the econ­o­my final­ly began to take off, the few films that start­ed to get made here were greet­ed by every­one as mirac­u­lous events akin to the mov­ing stat­ues that had pre­ced­ed them the decade before. 

This was as true of Irish audi­ences as it was of the film crit­ics who served them. Which was per­fect­ly under­stand­able. But that didn’t make it any less dis­ap­point­ing. Films like Words Upon the Win­dow­pane, 1994, Cir­cle of Friends, ‘95, The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, ‘96, The Last of the High Kings ’96, The Nephew, ’98 and Ordi­nary Decent Crim­i­nal, 2000, were all joy­ous­ly cel­e­brat­ed and applaud­ed when they should have been qui­et­ly lament­ed and apol­o­gised for.

A poster as metic­u­lous­ly craft­ed as the script they used.

For one thing, it’s hope­less­ly patro­n­is­ing to the film mak­ers. We don’t laud Dublin­ers, the Pogues or Bri­an Friel because they’re Irish, but because they’re good. To encour­age audi­ences to see a film or watch a tele­vi­sion series just because it’s Irish is mor­ti­fy­ing. It’s crit­i­cism sunk by a sense of infe­ri­or­i­ty, anchored by a crip­pling­ly chipped shoul­der. It is, in short, unfor­giv­ably parochial.

Which was why, in days gone by, we turned to Britain when we want­ed any serous cul­tur­al crit­i­cism. When The Guardian, The Tele­graph, The Inde­pen­dent, The Times or The Sun­day Times reviewed a British film they judged it on its own merit. 

That con­trast in innate cul­tur­al con­fi­dence was all the more strik­ing in the decade that saw Trainspot­ting and Four Wed­dings at the cin­e­ma, Brit­pop on the air­ways and the YBAs take the glob­al art mar­ket by storm.

Trainspot­ting: the British were coming.

But since the turn of the cen­tu­ry, the view from across the Irish Sea is of a very dif­fer­ent Britain. It’s sud­den­ly become unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly provin­cial and insu­lar. Small­er and less interesting. 

That loss of con­fi­dence has recent­ly become vis­i­ble in its film crit­i­cism. Dispir­it­ing­ly, British films have of late been han­dled by the film crit­ics over there with the same kind of kid gloves that we used to han­dle our own films with. Anni­hi­la­tion being a case in point.

Anni­hi­la­tion (2018) is Alex Gar­land’s fol­low up to Ex Machi­na, his well–received 2014 screen debut. In the tri­umphant­ly pos­i­tive review that he gave it in The Tele­graph here, Tim Robey descried Anni­hi­la­tion as being “exhil­a­rat­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing in equal mea­sure”. Whilst Ben­jamin Lee, in the 4 star review he gave it in the Guardian here, praised it for being “admirably uncom­pro­mis­ing… and won­der­ful­ly unknow­able.”

Ex Machi­na.

Real­ly. Imag­ine a group of first year film stu­dents after one too many joints on a pic­nic in Cen­tral Park. And they sud­den­ly decide, inevitably, that what they absolute­ly have to do is to shoot a film on one of their phones, right now! So they stitch togeth­er a script for what they think will be an hilar­i­ous B movie pas­tiche, a sort of Ghost­busters meets Alien but with 5, all female pro­tag­o­nists, who are all, get this, scientists!! 

But once they get back to their dorm to edit what they’ve shot, they com­plete­ly for­get that the whole thing was meant to have been a joke, and they all start tak­ing the whole thing ter­ri­bly seri­ous­ly. This, alas, is the result.

Natal­ie Port­man in V for Vendet­ta; hap­pi­er times. c/o

Apart from any­thing else, it all looks and sounds so unremit­ting­ly cheap. What on earth can they have spent the $55m bud­get on? The effects look like they were done on an ear­li­er ver­sion of the phone you replaced your cur­rent one with. And the, ahem, sci­ence that the mis­for­tu­nate actress­es are asked to spout is of the sort that would once have been found on the back of a matchbox. 

It’s hard to know what’s more dis­ap­point­ing, the film itself or the reviews that it received. Still, no need to write Gar­land com­plete­ly off quite yet. Six episodes into Devs, his BBC/Hulu TV series sug­gest some­thing of a return to form. He just needs to stick to con­ven­tion­al thrillers, and leave the big sci­ence to actu­al scientists. 

You can see the trail­er for Anni­hi­la­tion here

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