I felt obligated to see Annihilation in the cinema since it’s going straight to Netflix in most nations & is being overshadowed by Black Panther pandemonium. It’s based on a book … I haven’t read yet. Sorry, I’m not gonna be much help with adaptation insights here. Why can’t Hollywood ever adapt something I’ve read? Well Peter Rabbit looks like a terrible Beatrix Potter adaptation, but part of me still wants to see General Hux on the receiving end of slapstick violence. Oh, Ready Player One is happening. I resent that its ads are ironically co-opting “Pure Imagination!” Grodd damn it, monkey’s paw! It should’ve been Snowcrash or Neuromancer!
My theater was almost sold out, so I got stuck craning my neck in the front row. It was not an ideal situation. The cast often looked flattened & oddly proportioned as a result of my forced perspective. I’m unsure if this enhanced the body horror. Below begins the annihilation of your pre-spoilers existence.
The story happens when the US government sends a scientific expedition into a national park that’s been annexed by an extraterrestrial energy field called The Shimmer. (Oddly this national park, inspired by Florida’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, also encompasses a military installation & a small neighborhood. Also the government has somehow managed to keep this highly visible incursion hushed up for three years.) Much of the problems seem like they could’ve been avoided just by sending teams into The Shimmer in hazmat suits. The sole survivor of the previous military expedition having mysterious organ failure seems like it should’ve tipped them off to this precaution. Even before entering into this ecological madhouse, the whole team is grappling with personalized psychological traumas & self-destructive tendencies. At least nobody seems Prometheus level incompetent at the outset.
The character names are unimportant since they were originally just job descriptors (that also don’t play as big a role as you’d expect), so I’m just going to use the cast’s names. (This movie contains four thespians that’ve played Marvel characters, but there’s no appearance by Annihilus the Living Death That Walks Even Though He’s Got Wings.) Geneticist Natalie Portman is the lead because her career is most relevant. (I am now convinced that Millie Bobby Brown is her clone.) She doesn’t do much, but withdrawn Tessa Thompson is as convincingly different here from her bombastic Thor Ragnarok & conniving Westworld roles. I don’t watch Jane The Virgin (I only had room for one CW show that’s much better than its title, so I went for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), but reports indicate Gina Rodriguez is also chameleonic. (It’s vaguely chauvanistic that she complains about things being too heavy twice.) As the protagonist’s soldier husband, Oscar Isaac pulls an After Earth by tamping down his megawatt charisma to a couple rungs above cardboard. (Now the undercooked love interest shoe’s on the other foot!) Hooray for forcing actors to act!
Because everything’s gotta be problematic, however, there is some whitewashing. Writer-director Alex Garland claims he didn’t realize Portman’s & Jennifer Jason Leigh’s characters were mixed race when he made the movie. (I haven’t heard anything about the other characters’ ethnicities in the books.) Apparently this is only made explicit in Authority, the middle of The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. I thought it fishy that Garland didn’t do due diligence to read all the books since they were released the same year. Then I heard they were twice as long & inscrutable as the first. So I guess the moral is that authors of multi-volume works should front load these details in case readers don’t make it past the first book.
Within The Shimmer is a cross between Miyazaki & Cronenberg. Based on the buzz about how trippy the novel is, I expected the stuff in the trailer to be just the tip of the weirdness iceberg. They’re more like 3/4 of it. Maybe I’m just too inured to oddity?
It’s got the finest mutant bear since Prophecy (not the one with Christopher Walken). It speaks with the voices of the dead! Its name is Homerton. Was it another Isaac clone inspired by his bear tattoo? The shark-toothed alligator was keen too.
The Shimmer recombinates the DNA of its inhabitants like a prism refracting light. This is really nifty! The movie goes even further by having Portman mysteriously acquire Rodriguez’s infinity snake tattoo. I thought this meant the Shimmer survivor was actually a mutated Rodriguez since tattoos aren’t genetic, but apparently Thompson’s theory wasn’t a full explanation of The Shimmer’s power.
Rather than random recombinations, many mutations appear partially character inspired. Wallflower Thompson wills herself into becoming Swamp Thing, which is a property Garland has expressed interest in adapting. Leigh’s character has terminal cancer, & she self-destructs by vomiting a rainbow in the lighthouse core of The Shimmer. That coalesces into a prismatic tumor doppelgänger of Portman that does the Duck Soup mirror routine. The Shimmer vanishes when Portman rebuffs The Shimmer by murdering this avatar. She survives (along with a clone of her husband) with the The Shimmer’s effects inside her, but we sadly don’t see her transform into anything like she does in Black Swan. I had my fingers crossed for a metamorphosis on the order of Tokyo Gore Police.
Instead of crescendoing craziness, the movie ends in a bit of a whimper. A simple grenade eradicating The Shimmer doesn’t make sense unless you interpret Portman’s cruel rebuff driving its consciousness away. The threat of The Shimmer’s ecosystem overtaking the Earth just ends. Infected Portman & Isaac are reunited, but there’s no hint of them producing a new species of Shimmer babies. Since the framing sequence spoiled that Portman survives, there isn’t enough tension reaching this point. For a story evoking invasive species & Anthropocene climate change, the conclusion is too tidy. It’s missing a maraschino cherry of bizarreness to top off this surrealism sundae. The movie does seem like a good launching point for going weirder in Authority & Acceptance (it could’ve been called The Triple A Trilogy) adaptations, but those movies probably won’t be made because the studio screwed over its international & domestic box office. I wonder if television would be the best medium for this series.
I’ve seen the film being labelled “smart science fiction” as both a pro & con. This is a quality movie, but I don’t think this haughty description is particularly meaningful. While the pacing can be as deliberate as a Russian sci-fi movie, it’s not that intellectually challenging. You don’t need a doctorate to understand this movie, especially since even the movie’s doctors don’t. The characters use some scientific jargon, but nothing The Shimmer does is scientifically plausible anyway. The genre distinction between fantasy & science fiction basically comes down to the terminology used. (The sci-fi vs. fantasy nerd wars must end!) The narrative itself is accessible. It’s way less pretentious than
Under The Skin ScarJo Fails At Eating Cake!
I did like Annihilation, but hailing it as a modern masterpiece seems premature. The buzz around both the book & the film raised my expectations too high. If you can see it in the cinema in your country, however, I still recommend supporting it. Getting a top notch cast for a speculative fiction flick that’s not a remake or part of mega-franchise is a rare treat these days. There’s also lots of iridescence! It’s like a zillion times better than Mortal Kombat: Annihilation!