Some science fiction brings us characters we remember and want to live with. Some beats the trend with characters we know so well we’d rather keep our distance. Annihilation is like that, and so was Blade Runner – films that don’t even try to be relatable because they’re too busy calculating their themes in their head. Annihilation isn’t essentially different from those old B-movies with rubber monsters and blank-eyed scientist waifs and big, calculating ideas about teaching us something about the universe. It’s just the movie those movies hope to be when they grow up.
Annihilation doesn’t just have a setup – it feels like it does. We’re introduced to Lena (Natalie Portman) during one of her college lectures on biology, which is one of those movie scenes spoken like a speech, with the simplicity of naming themes to the audience as though the other people in the room aren’t just extras, but really are “extra.” She clarifies not only that all things are made of cells, but introduces us to cancer as though we’ve never heard of it – it’s the equivalent of the entomologist’s slideshow in Them!, a film with at least enough decency not to start with it.
We’re introduced to the fact that Lena lost her husband (Oscar Isaac) almost immediately as he reappears, in a scene of teary indifference. The problem is that to us he just went missing; we can’t feel the weight of the year she was without him because we’re introduced to him almost at the same time that we meet her. He’s the film’s appendix: Annihilation spoils its ending by coming back to him, and Lena knots herself up over him for no reason other than riding him into the plot of the movie. As much as the film mirrors the establishing situation of Arrival, the idea of military scientists requesting her help on this horror movie doesn’t seem so farfetched. We didn’t really need to dwell on it.
Lena meets her quippy squad-mates, which include Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. “All women?” Lena asks, not unreasonably. “All scientists,” someone snarls. Well, okay. So Annihilation makes a snide remark about its creators’ choice to cast all women. But this is a film that does cast all women and doesn’t do so to act above reproach (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) or to mediate a studio’s lack of confidence in a bad movie with a smokescreen of political defiance (Ghostbusters). The line is bad but the choice is good: it gives the film its particular strengths and anxieties, and because writer/director Alex Garland is brave enough to make these women not only strong (which requires no courage) but also fallible, they do not feel like they were cast on an agenda. I may not have even noticed that there was something to notice if the movie hadn’t pointed it out, and it shouldn’t have. Almost no one saw Annihilation and almost no one talked about it being “revolutionarily gender-diverse”: think of that the next time a studio tries to guilt you into praising a bad movie because they were brave enough to put a queef joke in it (again with Ghostbusters: hopefully my reviews will eventually be rid of Ghostbusters).
I’m getting uncharacteristically long on plot summary here: I’m doing it to demonstrate how much of Annihilation really feels like plot. It does get better – does that feel like a twist? – in the construction of its themes and the composition of its images. In fact, like Blade Runner and especially like Prometheus, Annihilation is a movie superseded by the thoughts you have about it. When it’s trying to be a movie with a $50 million budget, a movie that people need to see so a studio can make good on their investment, it sticks to easy targets: plot contrivances (“You lied to me!”), predictable twists (he/she is actually one of the aliens!), and monster porn. But sometimes, as bad B-movies are dreaming of being Annihilation, Annihilation is dreaming of being like its heroes, movies that linger on a compelling image to tell a story in shadows and not just in words, movies that don’t need money in front of them or behind them, movies like Under the Skin and The Neon Demon. These are the times when Annihilation can surprise you.
Anyone knows that in a movie like this – a squad of able-bodied specialists venturing into danger and/or against a monster, in this case a dome of distortion called the “Shimmer” – our plucky multi-ethnic squabblers will get picked off one by one. It always happens – it happened in It! The Terror from Beyond Space, and in Alien, and in Predator, and in countless others, recently concluding with Annihilation but certainly not ending with it. Annihilation uses this old schematic but it has considerable genius in how it works within it. It makes its victims broken by their own lives -- some people will probably wonder why the army has no psych-evaluation for a mission like this and it does stick out as unrealistic. But why would I want to turn the movie into Battle L.A.? Annihilation prioritizes character interaction way over realism and I'm okay with that.
Consider the concept of each person being killed one at a time by this unknown monster. That would normally be a means of plot acceleration, to isolate our hero, increase the stakes, and wind the movie down. In Annihilation, these character deaths don’t serve the plot: they reinforce the movie’s themes by having each of these specialists play out their part in them. So what are the movie’s themes?
It’s significant that Annihilation is the kind of movie where this question is pertinent to understanding the movie’s plot. Its metaphors and symbols are not subliminal: they are active, textual components of a movie that wears all its secrets on its sleeve. The fact that it has these themes is its greatest asset and the fact that it shares them with such tactless “movie-ness” is its ugliest feature. Characters will recount their backstory in one of the movie’s many exposition scenes, and they will do so with direct reference to the movie’s thematic structure. Garland seems like a smart guy but he doesn’t seem to think very highly of us: he adapts Jeff VanderMeer's novel like it’s too big for us to handle without holding our hands.
But the themes do exist and they are clear, so clear that they are not debatable. They are 1) that humans are programmed for self-destruction and 2) that our relationships with each other are our means to that end.
So a character known to be a recovering drug addict is killed by paranoia, her own worst user to the very end. A character dying from within of cancer, who must know the source of the Shimmer, dies because she wants to know it so much that she absorbs it into herself. Another character remarks that after the death of her daughter there were “two bereavements: one for my little girl and one for the person I used to be.” So she dies needlessly and unheroically, and only her fear survives, the only part of her left after she lost her daughter – this is shown when the bear that kills her returns with part of her skull growing out of its own, and her terrified screams mixed into its roar. The villain here is an entity a bit like that in Invasion of the Body Snatchers but with an emphasis on relationships: it takes genetic material and mashes it together, making it all equal. A character who used to cut herself, “to feel alive,” now surrenders to the harmony of being equal with everything, rather than be left with nothing but her fear. She wears her scars proudly as she walks off into the greenery, sprouting into it, as Lena chases after her. The scene is haunting and mystical, Daphne and Apollo adapted to science fiction horror, ripped of its jealous romance and implanted with a terrifyingly peaceful nihilism. It’s stunning.
Lena fits particularly well into all this thematic finagling. She’s revealed to have had an affair with a co-worker, and to be sickened by it. Her aloof husband knows and it tears them apart, as much as his aloofness already had. She’s such an unsympathetic heroine that she becomes empathetic: she’s so unlike the stolid nobodies that usually go off and fight these monsters that we relate to her. She’s evil enough to remind us of ourselves. And when she confronts a being of terrifying uniformity, a planetary cancer that can’t be stopped or understood or calculated or reasoned, she kills it by becoming a part of it. She gives it the will to commit suicide. It burns down its house the way she did, and like her it will never know why (she’s being interviewed throughout the movie after the film’s events, something I don’t find necessary except in revealing that she knows nothing at all about the thing that tried to kill the human race by becoming it, or at least, no more than she knows about herself). The need for a twist trips up this unsettling serenity: that the only reason we could not transform into this new world is that ours will not last forever. We are saved by self-destruction.
Metaphor usually isn’t written into a movie’s story but that’s just what Annihilation does, as a film with high ambitions and low regards. Garland knew he was making a film for theaters despite his heady intentions, and he was so far off that the joke is on us. After a bad test screening, a money man at Paramount demanded that Annihilation be changed: a more sympathetic heroine, a happier ending, less intellectuality. The producer, Scott Rudin, had final cut and that’s the only reason Annihilation retains the ability to impress some of us, and wasn’t torn up by a studio’s idea of mass appeal until it became Suicide Squad. The studio was still so afraid of it that it shoved it onto Netflix at the first opportunity. It must be hard to be an Alex Garland in this era of movies. He’s like Michelangelo born in a marble shortage.
No, Annihilation is not perfect. But its flaws are of a much lower order than its beauty. They don’t wear helmets into the Shimmer, for some reason, despite having no idea what killed the previous expeditions (H.G. Wells characters don’t wear them either, even on the moon, but they also don’t babble about mitochondria so they have ignorance to excuse them). The actors pass on all their basic emotion tests but none of the performances ever break out. Isaac can’t seem to decide if he has an accent or not (I’m aware that there’s some justification for this, but even in the flashbacks there seems to be some discrepancy). Leigh seems to be on so much Ambien that I’m surprised absorbing her didn’t put the Shimmer to sleep. The CGI is also obnoxiously bad, to the point that they should have shown less of it. The terrifying hybrid bear monster is laughable too: it looks like a graphics test. There are people made of slime (they look like light reflected by oil slicks stacked up into a person) animated so strangely that a scene of great fear (it mimics everything Lena does) reads more like the Harpo Marx mirror gag.
I don’t go to movies to pick out things like that. I go because they have the capacity to explore an interesting theme through interactions, and tell me something about myself by doing so. Movies let me escape to a place where I matter. Annihilation does it and it does it in canon. It does it to the point that it acquires the only flaw I care about: it’s just so obvious about it.
But it helps me forgive it with its images. The Shimmer builds people out of flowers and vines; is it trying to comprehend us through form alone? They stand in a field like the silhouettes burned into the stone after Hiroshima. Bones laid out on a beach sprouting with trees made of glass compressed from the sand recall Dali paintings and Jodorowsky films, as does a man growing into a concrete wall, his skull hanging out in an explosion of greenery, like a pop-art crucifixion. There are dreams in Annihilation to make up for its nighttime reflux of more conventional movies. Almost no one saw it, not because of its gross obviousness, but because of its beauty. Not even starring five women in the zeitgeist of gender representation could save it from being smart.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Alex Garland (screenplay)
Jeff VanderMeer (book)
|Dr. Ventress||Jennifer Jason Leigh|
|Anya Thorensen||Gina Rodriguez|
|Josie Radek||Tessa Thompson|
|Cass Sheppard||Tuva Novotny|