I had every intention of seeing Annihilation in theaters; unfortunately, it only stayed on the big screen for roughly seven seconds before disappearing into the void, infuriating me to no end. However, now that I’ve finally had the opportunity?
Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure what I think about it.
If you haven’t read the Southern Reach trilogy yet, don’t worry. I haven’t either. You may peruse this review without fear of being Book Spoiled.
You needn’t fear Film Spoilers, either, at least not until the appropriately named Spoiler Section. THEN there will be spoilers galore, not only for Annihilation but also for The Usual Suspects. Does that surprise you? Yeah, it surprised me, too. And yet, here we are.
After her husband returns home from a secret mission, altered and deathly ill, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) joins an all-female team of scientists and soldiers to investigate a quarantined and mysterious zone where things are–in technical terms–fucked right up.
1. This movie wasn’t quite what I expected it to be.
If I’m being honest, I don’t know exactly what I expected. Intellectual SF, certainly. Arrival with a bit more suspense and action. Since the studio only bothered to put about .07 cents into marketing, I don’t even remember seeing a trailer; I think I just read a synopsis or two and thought, All women in weird SF film? Tessa Thompson, too? SIGN ME UP.
This is probably why, when I chose to watch Annihilation all alone in my house at three in the morning, I was not expecting to see a horror movie. And that’s not a complaint: I had a pretty great time watching this. Still, this is definitely sci-fi horror: slowly-paced, sure, and more creepy body horror than the giant monster kind–although monsters also abound–but Arrival with action, this is not. And I like what it is; really, I do, but I also can’t help but feel that sometimes the movie gets in its own way.
2. A short list of some things I would like to change about Annihilation:
The Framing Device: it’s completely unnecessary and–like many similar framing devices–takes away tension rather than builds it.
The Time Jump: it doesn’t make much sense and, ultimately, doesn’t add anything to the story.
The Biohazard Suits: where the fuck are they?
The Phosphorous Grenade: yeah, I can’t say anything else about this yet.
The Screen Time Given To The Team, Esp. Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson: NEED MOAR NOW PLZ.
3. A bit more about that team:
First, an All Lady Team in a SF/Horror movie? This is awesome. And each of the women are distinct, with varying personalities, ethnicities, and backstories . . . backstories, unfortunately, that can be, and pretty much are, summed up with one sentence each. We get fascinating glimpses of five different women, but sadly, not much more than that for anyone except Natalie Portman (and, to an extent, Jennifer Jason Leigh).
That being said, Gina Rodriguez completely manages to steal the show for me.
This isn’t to say that the other actresses aren’t impressive in their own right: Natalie Portman does solid work as a grieving woman struggling with her own guilt, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson are frankly more compelling than the material they’re given to work with, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is perfectly serviceable, though I must admit I find her character the least interesting of the group. Still, there’s something about Rodriguez that feels transformative here, possibly because she’s most well known from Jane the Virgin, and, well. Anya Thorenson ain’t Jane. Instead, Anya is an extroverted, queer, and badass paramedic, and there’s a both a look and a physicality to Rodriguez’s performance that I just found very captivating.
4. As far as the supporting male roles go:
While I suspect that Kane, Lena’s husband, could’ve easily been played by many different actors, Oscar Isaac makes the most of his scenes, and I always enjoy seeing him. (Although in one notable scene, his character’s accent suddenly seems much thicker, which . . . obviously accents can become thicker or thinner due to environment, stress, whatever, but I hadn’t actually realized Kane even had a Southern accent, so it definitely threw me.)
Meanwhile, I also enjoy seeing Benedict Wong whenever he pops up in something. Unfortunately, his entire role in this movie is to ask expository questions, like, that’s literally ALL he gets to do here. It’s a bit disappointing.
5. While we’re discussing cast, we do have to bring up the whitewashing controversy.
In the Southern Reach trilogy, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s characters are both women of color, though apparently neither are described as such (or even named) in the first novel. Alex Garland has since said that he was unaware of this because he never read the sequels. While it’s unclear if that’s true or not–it’s been reported that Garland also discussed the books at some length with author Jeff VanderMeer, and you think the subject might have come up–I will say that, for as much as my opinion here actually matters, I do think it’s reasonable to assume that you shouldn’t have to read multiple books in a series to discover the MC’s ethnicity. At the same time, though, it’s also important to note that just because a character’s ethnicity is never stated doesn’t mean they default white, either. Or they shouldn’t, anyway. The world isn’t “white unless otherwise stated” and shouldn’t be treated as such.
6.Visually, Annihilation is extremely striking, which is perhaps not surprising from the man who made Ex Machina (a film which, yes, I still haven’t seen, but I am familiar with its overall aesthetic). The cinematography here, the art direction, it all comes together to make a very colorful, very vibrant, very eerie ass film.
7. Finally, without getting into spoilers, let me just say that the last 20 minutes or so of this movie reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in a way that didn’t completely infuriate me, which is an impressive feat all on its own. Actually, I really enjoyed some of this movie’s more trippy scenes; I just wish there weren’t so many frustrating conveniences and/or narrative choices I didn’t like along the way.
To discuss those choices in considerably more detail, continue below:
We begin in the future. Lena’s expedition is already over, and only she has made it back to tell the tale: Anya Thorenson (Rodriguez) and Cass Sheppard (Novotny) are definitely dead, while Josie Radek (Thompson) and Dr. Ventress (Jason Leigh) are maybe-possibly-probably dead. (Or, at the very least, Something Bad has definitely happened to them.)
Already, I’m disappointed.
Admittedly, the Interview/Interrogation has never really been one of my favorite framing devices, but it can absolutely work. Here, though, I think it fails on basically every level: for one thing, straight up telling the audience who’s died in the first five minutes? That doesn’t build tension for me; rather, it deflates it. Also, if you’re going to continuously cut away from the Gripping Main Plot just to see some dude in a biohazard suit ask questions like “what did you eat,” like, there needs to be an actual reason for that. For instance, if this whole interview is secretly setting up important tells for a Big Twist, or at least preparing for some kind of significant reversal. Annihilation is kinda-sorta doing that, but . . . yeah, it doesn’t really work.
This is where I’d like you to consider The Usual Suspects, a film with a similar–yet far more successful–framing device.
We begin in the future. An injured Gabriel Byrne, sitting next to someone who’s dead, talks to someone else whose face we don’t see, the mysterious Keyser Soze. GB is apparently shot dead, though we never actually see this. The next day, Chazz Palminteri interrogates Verbal Kint, who tells us the Tale of The Extremely Unfortunate Heist. Eventually, CP gives us the Fake Out Twist that Byrne was never really shot, that he was actually Keyser Soze all along. Shortly after that, we get the REAL twist: it’s Verbal, not GB, who’s secretly Soze, and this whole story he’s been telling is one big lie, complete with little details that he’s taken from his surroundings. (Seen above.)
Both films start after everything has clearly gone to hell, yet TUS leaves a lot more open to be discovered: only one person is definitely dead, though we don’t know who, nobody even mentions Hockney, McManus, and Fenster, and Keaton’s death is offscreen and thus immediately suspect. Unlike poor Benedict Wong, CP is allowed to actually have personality; moreover, his role isn’t just to ask questions but to present that Fake Out Twist, which only makes the Real Twist more shocking. And since Verbal is using visual cues to build his story, there’s actually a reason to continuously cut back to him and CP. You need those scenes for the ending to work; in Annihilation, not so much.
See, Annihilation does come with a twist ending of sorts: it turns out that Kane Prime (Isaac) never made it out of the Shimmer after all. What came back was a duplicate, a fusion of Kane’s DNA and . . . other stuff, while Kane Prime committed suicide in the Shimmer. And Lena, herself, may or may not be the original Lena. It’s left open to interpretation, although, honestly, I don’t think it matters much if she’s Prime Lena or Duplicate Lena; either way, she’s been fundamentally changed into something different and/or new, as evidenced by her arm tattoo and glowy-eyes.
Still, I’m not sure how shocking these Big Twists really are; after all, Lena’s already confirmed that she’s been affected/infected maybe thirty minutes before the film ends. And while I was surprised to discover that Kane Prime died in the Shimmer, I wasn’t, like, that surprised? I mean it’s pretty clear from the beginning that Lena isn’t really talking to her husband anymore (that whole “I recognized you” bit, for instance, as if he’d only ever seen a picture of her). I just figured Kane had been, like, possessed by alien fungus, not that the fungus was literally mimicking his body. More importantly, though, none of Natalie Portman and Benedict Wong’s scenes are even remotely necessary to set up these big reveals. Portman does use the word “duplicates” or “doubles” with a certain amount of Significance, but the twinned deer actually function as considerably better foreshadow. Likewise, we do get to see that Lena has come back with a tattoo she didn’t originally have, but again, learning that in this particular scene doesn’t really add much to the story. All in all, we cut back to NP and BW, what, like five or six times during the film? It’s screen time that would’ve been much better spent on allowing Anya and Josie to have backstories that are slightly more nuanced and detailed than “was an addict” and “used to cut herself.”
With that first major complaint out of the way, let’s go back to our random list format, shall we?
8. I hope we’re not supposed to like or sympathize with Dan (David Gyasi), the guy Lena cheated with, because I think he’s a creepy little Nice Guy asshole. Like, dude, take the hint and back off. She don’t want your ass anymore. Deal with it.
9. The bear-thing that carries its victims screams? FUCKING CREEPY.
I mean, IDK, maybe it was just me being alone in my house at three in the morning, but this scene was intense. Also, the scene where Kane cuts open his fellow soldier’s belly and something’s moving inside? AWESOME. I might not have been expecting the horror in Annihilation, but I loved it anyway.
10. I know I mentioned this before, but the movie really is visually gorgeous. The Shimmer itself is lovely. The Flower People Sculptures are a personal favorite. Also, everything during the mindfuck last 20 minutes, between Ventress screaming out fire and the strange violent dance between Lena and her double . . . it’s all just really cool to look at.
11. Which, I guess, is why I’m so frustrated by certain script problems I have. Because while I may grow to like this movie more and more on additional viewings, I also can’t help but feel like I have too many narrative problems to love this movie the way I easily could have.
Some of these problems are surely going to be considered pedantic. For instance, it kills me, just KILLS ME, that the five women go into the Shimmer without protective gear of any kind. They’ve got packs, food supplies, assault rifles, etc., but they don’t have masks or gloves or respirators, even though the only person who has ever come out of the Shimmer is dying from unexplained multiple organ failure and massive internal bleeding.
And look, I’m sure it’s hard to do battle in hazmat suits and all, but then again, for all the government knows, there isn’t even anything to fight inside the Shimmer; it could just be some fast-acting radioactive material that’s killing their people left and right. Sure, the hazmat suits totally wouldn’t have saved them from the Big Alien DNA Prism, but there’s no way our team could’ve known that. Which means this is just dumb. It’s especially dumb because a) Benedict Wong, not to mention the 50 people outside Lena’s fucking interrogation room, gets to wear PPE, and b) there’s a 3-day time jump near the beginning of the movie where the women wake up with no memory. It’d be an easy thing for the ladies to walk in with protective gear, only to wake up three days later in civvies. (Though, honestly, I’d rather just get rid of the time jump entirely. The whole deal about the Shimmer is that everything is reflecting off each other, that DNA is bouncing around, mutating old things, creating new things, etc. Most of the memory loss and time dilation stuff doesn’t really feel like it fits to me or serves much purpose, other than to be Mysterious.)
12. Another small problem: Lena goes off on her own to find Sheppard’s body, refusing to let Anya come with her. This proves unfortunate because when Anya goes crazy later, it’s one of her pivotal pieces of evidences on why Lena can’t be trusted: maybe Sheppard wasn’t really dead, and/or maybe Lena’s the one who actually killed her.
I don’t mind the idea that Anya, paranoid and mutating, turns against Lena. (In fact, certain line deliveries like “Lena is a liar” feel almost reminiscent of Fairuza Balk from The Craft, and I am here for it.) Obviously, someone was going to, since Lena didn’t tell anyone that she was married to Kane. Still, there’s no real reason to insist on going alone, so the plot convenience bothers me. The only reason I can think of is that Lena, suspecting she’d find Sheppard dead, didn’t want Anya to see her friend’s body, but honestly? That’s not remotely how the scene plays to me. Not to mention, if you think there’s even the slightest chance that Sheppard’s alive, maybe bringing the woman who’s been a paramedic for ten years is not a bad call?
13. Finally, my last issue with the film: the Problem of the Phosphorous Grenade.
Lena Prime sets her double on fire (or possibly vice versa) with one of Kane’s random phosphorous grenades, which in turn sets the lighthouse on fire, and everything else on fire, and the Shimmer thus collapses or dissipates. And . . . I don’t like it.
I also don’t know how to fix it, exactly. I just know it feels way too small a solution, too easy. I don’t buy that one handy phosphorous grenade collapses the entire Shimmer, ending the primary conflict and allowing Whatever Version of Lena to escape. I want to buy it, but I just don’t, and that’s a pretty big problem for me because the entire resolution rests on it.
Like I said. I had a lot of fun watching this movie. But I just don’t always buy the writing here.
Lena: “It’s literally not possible.”
Josie: “It’s literally what’s happening.”
Dan: “You know it’s not me you hate, it’s yourself.”
Lena: “No, Dan, it’s you too.”
Kane: “I was just looking at the moon. It’s always so weird seeing it like that in the daylight.”
Lena: “Like God made a mistake. Left the hall lights on.”
Kane: “God doesn’t make mistakes. That’s somewhat key to the whole ‘being a god’ thing.”
Lena: “Pretty sure he does.”
Kane: “You know he’s listening right now, don’t you?”
Lena: “You take a cell, circumvent the Hayflick limit, you can prevent senescence.”
Kane: “I was about to make the exact same point.”
Ventress: “Then, as a psychologist, I’d say you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction.”
Kane: “We’ll be under the same hemisphere.”
Lena: “What does that tell me?”
Kane: “It tells you that if you step outside and look up, we’ll be looking at the same stars.”
Lena: “Holy fucking shit. Are you kidding? You think that’s what I do, while you’re away?”
Lena: “You think I’m out in the garden, pining, looking up in the sky?”
Kane: “Shut up.”
Lena: “Oh, to think, my beloved Kane is looking at the same stars!”
Josie: “I think as she was dying, a part of her mind became part of the creature that was killing her. Imagine dying frightened and in pain and having that as the only part of you that survives.”
It’s hard, you guys. It’s an engaging, feminist, intelligent SF horror film, so there’s obviously a lot to love. But for an intelligent SF film, I also can’t help but feel there were an awful lot of stumbling blocks that kept throwing me out of the story. Visually, it’s fascinating. Thematically, it’s really interesting. Don’t mind the music, either, which I forgot to mention before: a creepy, weird score occasionally punctuated with some more folksy material.
But even if I do end up liking this movie more and more on repeat viewings–and I might–I still feel like this is an ambitious film that could’ve been great instead of merely good.
Depends on your POV, I suppose. It’s either “creation can look like destruction” and “we see hostile purpose even when there is none” or “control yourself, fight against your self-destructive impulses, and don’t go into the fucking Shimmer.”