It’s been years since we’ve seen a major studio act so sheepishly about a film of their own doing as Paramount Pictures has with Annihilation, the strikingly “intellectual” new brainchild from writer/director Alex Garland, whose past successes include science fiction head-trips like Sunshine and the Oscar-winning Ex Machina. Paramount’s last-minute no-confidence vote has denied it an international theatrical release in favor of dumping it on overseas Netflix. Paramount’s official page for the film provides only the trailer embedded via YouTube and a link to the film’s “official site“…which just redirects to a Facebook page. I’m accustomed to short films and indie projects setting up shop on Facebook, but it’s disappointing for a corporation of Paramount’s size to limit their own product to such a minuscule online footprint. Apparently they were holding out hope that Garland might rewrite and reshoot to add some super awesome monster fights.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Based on the first novel in a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation drops us into a near-future in which biology professor Natalie Portman (three Star Wars and two Thor movies) plays the Concerned Wife™ after her military husband Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, one X-Men and two Star Wars movies) disappears when his team is sent to explore an unexplained phenomenon called the Shimmer, an expanding prismatic dome that first manifested after a space object craters into the side of a lighthouse. Some time later, her husband magically shows up at home, distant and addle-pated and showing timed-release symptoms of extreme trauma. Once several teams of guys have entered the Shimmer but failed to return or send any outgoing signals…it’s time for some women to enter the Shimmer instead and see what hath been wrought. Their journey is a slow descent into creeping terror, genetic disruption, mad animal redesigns, otherworldly landscapes, and the traditional horror-flick game of trying to guess which actresses die in what order.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Leading the team is Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight, a dozen-plus ’80s films) as a scientist with nothing left to lose. Other teammates include Tessa Thompson (Creed, Thor: Ragnarok) as the quiet, thoughtful one; Gina Rodriguez, playing the diametric opposite of Jane the Virgin, which equates to Vasquez from Aliens with five times the fury; and Swedish actress Tuva Novotny as the Other One.
Additional male representation includes Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange, Interstellar) as an interrogator back in the normal world, and David Gyasi, a.k.a. The Black Guy from Interstellar, as The Black Guy from Annihilation.
Blink and you miss Sonoya Mizuno, Oscar Isaac’s helper-bot from Ex Machina, as one of Portman’s students.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? One of many overarching themes, most discernible because there’s an entire speech about it, is humankind’s propensity for self-destruction. Whether interpreted as our unconscious entropic trapping or as man’s sinful nature surrendering to the evil clutches of this fallen world, we humans have a track record for doing things we know we shouldn’t, that will produce the worst results, that will ruin much around us, but we do them anyway. The mystifying nature of the Shimmer seems to amplify that dismantling of ordered forms, not just in their science-fiction surroundings but in the increasing group tension as their situation worsens and the explanations further complicate beyond their varying tolerance levels. We also see willfully bad decision-making in lower-budget forms in a few key normal-world flashbacks to signify we have this problem even when our world isn’t being twisted out of shape by forces beyond our ken.
That’s one primitive take on Annihilation, anyway. Half the people who’ve seen it (which, fulfilling Paramount’s prophecy, hasn’t been too many here stateside) have been inspired to pontificate at length in their own thinkpieces or tweetstorms on What It All Means. Interpretations vary from one viewer to the next, because Garland’s narrative is a tangled network of breadcrumb trails that lead in any number of directions depending on which baffling hints and boggling visuals speak to us most loudly. Amid all the perverted, transmogrifying, color-shifting flora and fauna in their path, no two viewers may latch on to the same uniquely haunting images. Other possible Morals of the Story may or may not touch upon:
* Self-negation taken to its logical conclusion
* The sustainability of ecosystems if and only if every part is properly built to do its specific job
* The importance and intentionality of variegation between lifeforms
* Genes are not toys
* The unlikelihood of jump-started macroevolution to lead to friendlier, cuddlier animals
* We as a species are all about self-determination and get upset whenever outsiders try to tell us how we should be
* like aliens duuude whooooooaaa
* Left to their own devices, women in groups will ultimately turn on each other, same as men
* The reassurance that sometimes it’s okay to examine a totally messed-up thing and have your final opinion of it be “I have no idea”
Nitpicking? As hinted above, if you detest ambiguity in your movies, Annihilation is rampant with it and will drive you up a wall. The novel might be a more concrete experience, but Garland chose a more artful if challenging approach to the material, one that his producer fully backed up when Paramount attempted to meddle. Based on a handful of angry comments I’ve seen on Twitter, there are indeed some viewers who love how studio execs think, and vice versa.
The trailers adequately convey the sense of ethereal weirdness all around, but they downplay how some scenarios are outright horror-SF. Squeamish viewers may experience discomfort at a few points, including the most nerve-wracking — a showdown between Our Heroes and what I can only vaguely describe without spoilers as a nasty demon-bear out for gore. I found myself so jarred and reeling that I missed it when another character abruptly experienced an unrelated development moments later.
So what’s to like? A female-led genre film in which not all the women are invincible winners may be a tough sell to an audience still in the throes of Black Panther ecstasy. Regardless, Annihilation bewilders and engages at once in a dazzling array of phantasmagoria riddled with copious clues, some buried deeply enough that even careful viewers may need one or more extra viewings to scrutinize the details and finalize their theses. (Among others, my son caught a clever bit that had escaped me involving a migrating tattoo.) From those visuals to the performances (Portman’s presence is suitably bold, but Rodriguez threatens to tear through the screen) to the disturbing score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, the sum of its parts is an immersive expedition into another dimension in filmmaking itself, a valid and vivid response to anyone claiming they wish movies would try “something different”.
Well. Garland tried. Delivering “something different” in theaters was absolutely his intent, same as it was for Ex Machina. Regrettably the opportunity has been severely curtailed for foreign markets, whom Paramount assumes won’t “get it”. The tepid American box office results aren’t exactly disproving that exec’s qualms, and aren’t terribly encouraging for any other cynics who blame mediocre wide-release fare on the undiscerning audience that seemingly outnumbers them.
In unrelated news, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle will be crossing the $400 million domestic mark within the next two weeks. So America’s got that going for it.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Annihilation end credits, just more of that score (which has surprisingly not been posted on YouTube yet for me to relive and consider buying), and I noticed a Special Thanks to comics artist Jock, which in turn led me to a tweet that confirmed he was involved early in the creative process, which, as a comics fan who admires his art, I thought was cool to learn.