Review of the Week–Annihilation

Once again, I find myself writing a review about a story that started off as a book, but eventually became a movie: Annihilation. Before educating myself, I had no clue that this sci-fi tale started on the written page instead of on the screen. But unlike the last time, when I looked at Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, I haven’t read the source material in this case (the novel by Jeff Vandermeer). So if you’re looking for a comparison, you’re probably out of luck. However, I’m happy to share my thoughts on Annihilation the movie because, trust me, there is a LOT to talk about here.

There’s a lot to wrap your head around here, so I’ll give you the gist: Annihilation focuses on Lena, a former military officer and biology specialist whose husband, Kane, suddenly and mysteriously reappears in a questionable medical state after a year of absence. Shortly after, they both are abducted by a secret government organization tasked with investigating the Shimmer: a bizarre phenomenon that occurred in a national park, since dubbed “Area X”, and has created an ever-expanding territory that no team, including Kane’s, has ever returned from exploring. Joining up with a team of other scientist women, Lena journeys into Area X to uncover the reason for Kane’s disappearance, reappearance, and illness. What she and her teammates find, however, is as horrifying as it is awe-inspiring. Over time, they learn the Shimmer is alien in origin, and warps all life to its purpose–including them.

One of my friends described Annihilation very well, in my view: it’s basically the movie version of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. There’s a lot of other elements at play here I think, but the basic principle is the same, and Lovecraft would have loved this story. Annihilation is, at its core, a study of what makes us human and what happens when that humanity, through unknown means and for unknown purpose, is slowly stripped away, piece by piece: our bodies, our minds, and our very souls twisted into something new and unimaginable. A few words I think that describe this film very well: mind-bending, stunning, beautiful. Also: unsettling, uncomfortable, and even disturbing at a very deep, visceral level.

As I’ve discussed with John Carpenter’s The Thing, I think the best stories are told when its creators chose one element or emotion to focus on, and make everything in the story, from its dialogue to its music to its scenery, a service toward the end goal of making the audience feel that, too. With The Thing it was claustrophobia and paranoia. With Annihilation, it’s discomfort and unease. The score, which mostly consists of acoustic guitar and a few stings of majestic, dissonant sound, isn’t one you’d right off hand associate with being made to feel spooky or unsettling, but it really does the job splendidly and captures the haunting quality of the Shimmer well. Just like Blade Runner 2049, which was about using booming sound to beat down the viewer and make them feel as oppressed as the characters, and The Thing‘s creepy synth melodies, this movie’s score keeps you on the edge of your seat, hypnotized, always not quite certain about what’s going on. It puts you perfectly in the headspace of Lena and her team.

Speaking of which, I’ve heard some flack directed at the actors in this film, and I’m here to tell you that’s totally unfair. While Annihilation is really more about themes and the spectacle of what’s going on than character beats, the acting is quite good. Natalie Portman is excellent as usual, and the supporting cast all has their moments to stand out. I especially want to recognize Gina Rodriguez, only known to me before this movie as the bubbly, smiley protagonist of such shows as the CW’s comedy Jane the Virgin. She starts out the same kind of generally outgoing, wisecracking, friendly type of person, and you watch her slowly unravel as the plot spins out–first withdrawn and sullen, then angry and paranoid, and finally a full-on, homicidal psycho turning on her own team. I was very impressed with that transition, how well it was done, and how terrifying it ended up being. The weak link, if I’m being honest, was probably Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress: I get why they wanted her to be cold and calculating, but if we just had some kind of personal connection with her or reason to care, she would have been a lot more effective as a character. But overall, not much to complain about in the acting department.

The characters of Annihilation were not overly developed, it’s true. But I think they were developed just enough to make us care about and identify with them–especially when all their individual flaws were pointed out by Sheppard toward the beginning–so that when the horrible end came for each of them, it still had an emotional impact. The whole point of the movie is watching how the Shimmer affects not just the landscape around the team, what with mutant killer bears that mimic human voices, human-shaped plants, deer with plant antlers, and shark-odiles (trust me, you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it), but the people within it. And it’s really, really disturbing. It’s not through blood and guts either, like so many of the bad horror movies out today: while there is a little of that, it goes deeper.

The film does everything it can to capture the stomach-turning horror of realizing you’re turning into something that you weren’t before, and the best (or worst) part is that it doesn’t specifically say that’s bad. Indeed, characters like Josie Radek seem to find more peace in the “becoming”–mutating into a plant or an extra-dimensional light thingy–than they ever had in their real lives. It’s just the principle of the thing. The unknown is the thing we as humans fear the most, and Annihilation serves up the unknown in spades. In the end, we’re not really sure what the Shimmer was, or if its purpose was good or bad. It just was, and it just was different than anything we could possibly comprehend. I don’t know about you, but that’s scary enough for me. Whether it be body horror, psychological horror, or bloody violence (the scene where Oscar Isaac deliberately mutilates his comrades with a smile on his face was particularly effective in making my skin crawl), Annihilation brings it all to the table, and that’s saying something. The end of the story doesn’t make things any easier for us, either: we’re left wondering if Kane isn’t Kane, what really is he? Is he dangerous? Can he make this whole thing start again? And it’s clear that despite the Shimmer being gone, its effects linger as Lena is still changing as well. Talk about a cliffhanger.

My only real beef with the movie is the flashback scenes, which reveal Lena’s affair and her estrangement from Kane. I’m not exactly sure what those were in aid of, in the final analysis: they certainly didn’t make her more sympathetic, as there seemed to be no reason for it at all other than a capricious act by her. Plus, it didn’t end up being relevant to the plot whatsoever. I don’t love flashbacks in general and think they’re a tired plot device, but I can at least get around that when it’s in service to the story. In this case, I don’t think they added anything, and in fact just made me confused. I guess you could argue that Lena’s guilt was one thing that drove her, but saving Kane seemed to be all the motivation she needed to take on that mission. Boy, was that a mistake.

My Rating: 8/10

Is Annihilation for everyone? No, definitely not. And I can see why critics are going to probably be heavily divided over this movie in the weeks to come. But for me, I loved it. I thought the way it made me feel–discomforted, disquieted, and disturbed–was one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of bringing the audience into the headspace of the characters. This is most definitely sci-fi, and it’s the thinking man’s sci-fi, as opposed to the blockbuster fun of something like Star Wars. I had a lot to think about and compartmentalize after seeing Annihilation, and to me, that puts it up there in the sci-fi/horror genre with giants like the Alien franchise. It was spooky. It was scary. It was alternatively sickening and spectacular, sometimes at the same exact time. That’s the mark of a pretty great movie.

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