dir: Alex Garland
Damn. Now that was an unsettling experience.
Annihilation was not what I was expecting, and I’d already read a bunch of reviews referencing Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, all of which I’ve seen / endured / survived. Mostly, Solaris, one of the most sleep inducing movies ever made, and Stalker, the other most sleep inducing movie ever made, are referenced. Everything’s always just a collection of references, naturally, but these are two very specific, very necessary ones.
Rest assured, Annihilation is nowhere near as boring as any of those movies mentioned. It has too much forward momentum, too many evil crazy bears and alligators, and people confronting the unknown and being painfully fucked by the unknown to have too much in common with the films of the Russian master.
Annihilation, though, is not a cheap and easy flick cobbled together from the remnants of a thousand other sci-fi flicks. It is, like many of the other flicks Alex Garland has been associated with, a fairly unique experience. Yes, there are antecedents, but it stands alone, and mostly unloved, but it deserves at least a certain amount of respect.
He used to just write the screenplays before, but then he must have thought “fuck it, I can do at least as good a job as the shmucks directing my work” and for once he seems to be right. Virtually everyone who saw Ex Machina thought it was pretty good, if not great, and on the back of that somehow somewhy Netflix coughed up a bunch of money to buy the flick after Paramount lost faith with the end product. Some people saw it in cinemas, but really, Netflix is the perfect venue for this. It’s visually strong but it’s not something that has to be seen on the big screen. Its virtues aren’t purely visual, they’re more conceptual, and that’s fine for the home theatre.
It’s an odd flick, that’s for sure. It doesn’t fit completely in either the science fiction genre or the horror genre, nor is it really an amalgam of the two. It does have a predominately female cast, but that doesn’t really change the nature of the flick even if it changes its tenor, its tone.
It’s an idea about life, the very nature of life, which is completely inimical to human life. I don’t think it’s inspired by the scene, but it did remind me of a scene from Snow White and the Huntsman, the fairly recent flick that probably had people in it but I don’t care to say any of their names except for Hemsworth of course, but the scenes I’m talking about were set in a nature sanctuary called… Sanctuary I think, where life was protected from the evil queen and winter and stuff, and was somewhat morphed in strange and unusual ways by the purity of nature.
So you had natural nature scenes overflowing with strange creatures, like turtles with plants growing on them, plants with eyes in them, eyes with plants in them, birds that were raccoons and fairies that were really platypuses, that sort of thing. It was a bit freaky, and it was totally ripped off from Miyazaki’s animated films (like Princess Mononoke especially) about how nature rules and humans suck, but it was meant to be awe-inspiring and comforting.
Annihilation is a bit awe-inspiring, but it’s definitely not comforting. Far from it. It’s a vision of nature that pretty much says people are the aberration for being stable, and the natural state of evolution (sped up, admittedly) is horrific flux and murderous change.
Something falls from the sky and hits a lighthouse somewhere on the southern-most part of the South, like maybe Texas, I’m thinking? Not remembering clearly (cocaine is a hell of a drug), but it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is, around wherever this was has sprung up a phenomenon that people call the Shimmer, which is, as you might guess, a shimmering kind of bubble that distorts not only light but everything else you could possibly care about within it becomes horribly mutated. People go into the area and don’t come out. It doesn’t seem like a place kind to humans. Other forms of life seem to love it, and thrive, and twist into new and freaky forms. But not the peeps. It’s oh so bad for the peeps.
A scientist called Lena (Natalie Portman) is in mourning because her husband, who was one of the military types sent into the Shimmer at some point a year ago, didn’t come back. And then, after ages of mourning, he (Oscar Isaacs) appears out of nowhere, doesn’t know anything, and is pretty freaky in the deal. Also, he’s not doing so well, bleeding through his mouth into a glass of water, which is a far more disturbing visual that you would think.
When Lena asks tough questions, well, the military types aren’t going to be very forthcoming, but eventually she ends up in the vicinity of the Shimmer, being told by a depressed Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that stuff is really fucked up on the other side of the border between Shimmer and non-Shimmer. Naturally, Lena, Ventress and some other depressed women are going to venture forth into the great unknown.
The flick takes its time to get there, and provides a cursory level of reasons as to why these people end up on their fatalistic mission. Sure they have their reasons, but the situation they’re facing, on the most part, is not one that is susceptible to reason or logic. I suspect that the ending might have been tampered with on some level (like with an executive or producer level set of notes strongly advising the director to make the ending make some kind of sense / closure, whose plaintive cries went unanswered) to make it more conventional. The path to that ending is not that straightforward, which is to the benefit of those of us who like watching something new or at least not so fucking banal all the time.
This zone is entirely hostile even when nothing’s trying to kill the explorers. It’s not logical, or kind, or reasonable, and within it the ladies are pretty much lost right from the start. Not only in space and time, but in terms of being at the mercy of seemingly chaotic natural forces. Whatever this phenomenon is, whether its radiation, some kind of biological entity or just Life Itself, it doesn’t seem to give any consideration or precedence to human life just because it thinks it’s at the top of the evolutionary ladder.
I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional, but it’s pretty much an artful depiction of how evolution and natural selection don’t really have the moral dimensions and meanings that we impute to them. If life in such an extreme form existed, it would wreck untold havoc upon us, not for any particular or specific reason, but just because that’s what life does. It changes things, it adapts, it changes the environment around itself, and it either thrives or dies off.
The protagonists, if protagonists they be don’t really have much say in what happens. Sure, they can protect themselves a bit from some of the crazier creatures that start attacking them because they have machine guns with them. But they’re in a place where they don’t have the choice as to whether they are going to change or not in the presence of this alien Shimmer stuff. Down to the cellular level, they are forever changed.
And in movies, especially a movie like this it means horror and bloodshed and death and suicide and more body horror and then confusion and some measure of wonder. The changes they face aren’t going to give them powers or joy. A video taken by the chaps who preceded them shows a man’s insides moving around independently for no earthly reason I could think of, and it’s pretty fucking horrific.
It’s a slow march for most of these characters to the inevitable Great Change in the Sky, and maybe that adds an interesting element to it, maybe not. When creatures attack, and these are freaky and horrible creatures of our world distorted enough to become even more horrific (I’m thinking mostly of the bear that screams with one of its previous victim’s voices, which is just a horrifying, horrifying sound, for me almost as much as for the women), it’s shocking. It’s enjoyable to watch them fight back so professionally (at first, when they’re still in relative ‘control’), but eventually it all becomes too overwhelming, too alien, and we know that survival is neither guaranteed nor likely or possible.
The eventual end, the lighthouse, what is there, is pretty much at the end of all effort, at the end of all sense and meaning, which is also why at this time when a character, one of the last women standing, disassociates into a million glowing pieces I was hardly even surprised and it didn’t bug me at all. Not understanding the mechanism by which something happens can be frustrating or off-putting, but in this context, I wouldn’t say it made sense, but at least her ending up there made a kind of sense.
It's strange that that is one of the elements I ‘enjoyed’ about it so much, being the reasons why the women were there, made so much sense to me that all the phantasmagoria occurring around them and to them seemed more meaningful. Jennifer Jason Leigh especially, who’s not a particularly sympathetic character, but to whom, having a death sentence placed on her well before she ever entered the Shimmer, whatever’s to happen isn’t as bad as what she was facing.
And Lena has her reasons too, even if it’s just garden variety guilt, but it don’t mean anything at the end anyway when she faces something that no-one could wrap their head around, in any context, for any reason. But she soldiers on anyway.
I couldn’t tell you what the ending means, or what ultimately happened, but the feeling I got was that a) we’re all doomed and b) there’s nothing we could have done about it anyway so just enjoy the visuals and plan some grand dramatic gesture for the end because the end is coming, don’t doubt it for a second.
Portman really is great in this role, and she’s never going to get much credit for it because this will just be forgotten in the mix of things, but I really think this will linger in the minds of a lot of people that like stuff (read: freaky shit) that sometimes is a bit freaky just for the sake of being goddamn freaky for once. The perfect encapsulation of how the flick isn’t here to hold our hand occurs at the end where Lena’s responses to an array of questions addressed to her are like what we would say.
“So, what happened?”
- “I dunno.”
“Why did it do what it did?”
- “It did what it did because that’s what it does.”
“Are you being cryptic for the sake of being cryptic?”
- “Dunno, maybe?”
How frustrating does that sound… but I got a lot out of it, and even more so on the second viewing. It’s the most enjoyment I’ve derived from watching a group of depressed women with guns wander around inside a hellish landscape in a long time, and I genuinely did enjoy it. I have no idea whether it could connect with other people that much, but it’s not like it matters. Sometimes it’s comforting / reassuring to watch something that doesn’t make a lot of sense only because most other flicks seem to make a lazy kind of sense and, really, honestly, how much the better for it are we, really, when we’re spoon fed so often and so completely?
8 times this flick is fun for the whole species until it goes from endangered to extinct in the space of 2 hours out of 10
“Then, as a psychologist, I think you're confusing suicide with self-destruction, and they're very different. Almost none of us commit suicide, whereas almost all of us self-destruct. Somehow. In some part of our lives. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job... or happy marriage. But these aren't decisions. They're impulses. And in fact, as a biologist, you're better placed to explain them than me.” – time makes fools of us all, especially when it sends a talking bear to eat our faces - Annihilation