Science Fiction done weird: Annihilation.
So, it’s been a while. Hasn’t it. But for once let’s say it was because there was nothing worth discussing between the last post and now, and had nothing to do with my being a scatty lazy asshole. Okay. Well, now there is something to talk about.
First off, let me say – yes, I am still extremely salty about Annihilation being yanked from cinemas and slapped on Netflix. We have almost no thinking woman’s SF in mainstream circulation these days, so fuck you Paramount for continuing that trend. What are us non-Netflix havers, those of us who still want to pick our own entertainment the time-honoured traditional way, by renting DVDs, supposed to do? Wait, they’ve closed the last rental place? Even the fucking hipsters have Netflix now, apparently. Well, balls.
Still, I can’t seem to work up any real rage about it, just a kind of exhausted loathing. Of course giant companies act exclusively based on figures, and test audiences, even if those audiences consider the most interesting SF flick of the year (yes, I am calling that in March, fight me) “overly intellectual” and “complicated”. God forbid we take a creative stab at something. Anyway. I still managed to watch it on a buddy’s Netflix, because I am totally that awful friend of yours who pontificates endlessly about the evils of having a car in the city, but is always the first to accept a lift and never pays gas money.
SIDE NOTE zum Ersten: There was a lot of controversy surrounding casting decisions of some of the central characters. I understand the outrage and find it troubling that Garland made his choices the way he did. While he did apologise (sort of? kinda?) it’s part of a real problem which needs to be urgently addressed. It would not have been hard to replace Portman with one of the countless talented Asian actresses, or Leigh with a Native American actress. FFS people. It’s 2018, fucking act like it.
Annihilation takes a significant departure from the novels, and based on the ending, I would hazard that no sequel is planned. This is a Good Thing, and I pray to Alice Munro that they stick to it, because a) fuck sequels, b) the well-roundedness of this film is extraordinary, and should not be tampered with, and c) FUCK SEQUELS.
Yes, I am a Star Wars fan. No, I am not bitter.
I haven’t yet finished the third book in the series, but I can say this – not much is lost in the telling. Without wishing to spoil, the novels have several complex subplots which would be, I think, virtually impossible to transfer to a visual medium, as well as a change of narrator in book 2. The movie very elegantly conveys the feel of the story, without adhering religiously to the plot. This further underlines my theory that novels are not good adaptive material for movies – short stories are far more effective, as you will have fewer subplots and chapters (imagine a movie with 10+ chapters. See? You get The Last Airbender. I bet you’d repressed that. You’re welcome) and more time to let story and the few characters you have (I am looking at you, Schumacher) breathe.
Alex Garland, who as usual wrote his own screenplay, seems to have understood this. He kept the central concepts, and worked out a simpler story. It is lacking in parts, but these are mostly in keeping with the novel, strangely enough. The somewhat flat characterisation of some of the scientists is exactly like the book, right down to the way VanderMeer describes the characters to us through the eyes of his (in book one) nameless biologist. Lena receives a name and more of a personality in the movie, although I am genuinely unsure if this was scripted or due to Natalie Portman’s likable charisma, which only rarely fails her.
The team of women work well together, apart from one or two scenes, but the character who stood out to me was Tessa Thompson. This is the first role I have seen her in where that innate sweetness she projects has a chance to shine. I never bought her mean girl character in Veronica Mars, and she’s fun enough in Thor, but the tough chick thing felt more forced than anything else.
SIDE NOTE zum Zweiten: congratulations, Marvel, on catching up with the rest of us and ending this charade of pretending that Thor can be taken seriously at any level. Thank you also for taking the only useful parts of the deplorable Planet Hulk, i.e. Hulk in fashionable Roman sandals, and discarding the rest. Thor Ragnarok gets full Superhero points from me, and savour that, my friends, because I usually save that shit for our Lady of Grace Wonder Woman. And yes, I will watch that sequel. I will be watching, Marvel. Very closely.
Thompson’s portrayal of the gentlest and kindest character humanised the entire team, and her final scene will probably haunt me for a long time.
Annihilation also doesn’t shy away from a certain level of psychological debate. The Shimmer can be read any number of ways, and the strange, dream-like logic lends itself to the question whether the whole thing is literal or metaphorical.
There are questions of self-destruction, loss and emotional connection, which are touched on, but not given satisfactory explanations. This is one of the parts where the movie flounders a bit, and while it isn’t hopeless, some of the conversational scenes fail to grip. Maybe this was the overly intellectual part. (I am sure some explosions would have livened things up, isn’t that right, test audiences?)
It does come together as a whole, and the weaker points feel experimental, a reasonably balanced if not always successful counterpoint to the nightmare fuel fever dream scenes. A little levity in the form of talkiness can be very effective, it just was not fully so here.
The film can be read a number of ways, and has been compared with The Colour out of Space – fair enough – as well as with Stalker and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I really couldn’t say what the resemblance is to the last one, save maybe the pacing and that funky music in the last section of the Annihilation? Maybe? To me, it was more reminiscent of A Black Hole or even The Planet of the Apes in terms of surrealist SF, a throwback to the 60s and 70s in the best possible way.
In conclusion, go see it. Netflix it, steal it, whatever, but it is worth your time. It raises good questions, it challenges the viewer (I love that phrase, in most cases, it means absolutely nothing) and in case you live under a rock and haven’t seen the trailer, it’s really fucking pretty.
AND NOW: SPOILER COMMENTS! SPOILERS SPOILERS LA DI DA
Jesus Christ, that screaming mutantbearthing freaked my shit out. I knew that something like that was coming, and frankly, I was relieved they didn’t go with the giant slimy corpse-pale thing with the faces of its victims in its skin (or something, I had to skim that passage and am not going back), BUT STILL.
And the ending was brilliantly fucked up and terrifying. The mirroring element worked extremely well, making the scene paranoid and awful. And let’s not forget that snuff film. Anyway. The conclusion was satisfying, and hopefully just that. A conclusion. Move along, Garland.