Authors: Alison Kaitcer & Cameron Fairchild
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Call it confirmation bias, but Annihilation is the latest indicator that the new wave of “serious,” indie-influenced science fiction films uses have so little dialogue because the screenwriter doesn’t know how to write it well. I don’t know what went wrong with this new era of sci-fi, beginning roughly with Interstellar and finding purchase in everything from Blade Runner 2049 to Black Mirror, but it is a cinema obsessed with uninteresting ideas over empathetic or interesting protagonists, visual splendor over context, and twisty storytelling over motivated characters. So much of modern sci-fi is contingent on puzzles and dense structures, but those dense structures seldom conceal anything worth hiding.
Alex Garland, established as a director of this particular strain of sci-fi with Ex Machina, is in many ways the natural product of this troublesome trend, with his directorial debut leaning in to a lot of the worst impulses of modern sci-fi—the telegraphed twists, the smugness at the center of a particularly unclever cleverness, a too-dire conclusion, and the idea that silence is a stand-in for depth. His latest, Annihilation, written and directed by Garland from the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name, spends much of its first 90 minutes throwing itself readily into each one of these genre pits. Then there’s the ending, which, without giving anything away, radically recontextualizes much of the film and does something legitimately weird and interesting with its weird and interesting premise. Garland improves heavily on his first feature with this final segment, even if the rest of Annihilation can’t match up to it.
Photo courtesy of Netflix
Annihilation centers on a team of researchers investigating the source of a mysterious disturbance called the Shimmer, which causes the disappearance of everyone—and everything—who has set foot inside. As with any movie featuring a large ensemble cast, Annihilation is tasked with defining each of the members of it’s team, but can barely establish a single motivation out of any character besides Natalie Portman’s Lena. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives what must be the least energetic performance of her career, interpreting depression in the most thudding, obvious monotone, while Tessa Thompson is wasted playing a stereotype of an already stereotypically subdued nerd, and Gina Rodriguez is barely given anything to do or say until the plot necessitates her involvement. The first two-thirds of the film play like Alien, a sort of sci-fi slasher, but the characters are given no time to develop, so no empathy can be cultivated for them. There’s no reason to care. Tellingly, the ending of the film has nothing to do with any of them, focusing solely on Portman’s character and her relationship with herself, and sort of her husband (Oscar Isaac, whose natural charisma isn’t so much drained as it is vacuumed out of him here). Annihilation has two distinct ideas at play, and the lesser one takes up the majority of its run time.
Above all else, Annihilation belongs in that category of films that just won’t leave you alone. For better or worse, the combination of story and visuals make it impossible to leave the theater without launching into a vague and wandering discussion of what it all actually means. I’m all for “cinema that sparks a conversation,” but there comes a point where intrigue alone isn’t enough to carry it.
I’m fairly certain I enjoyed Annihilation, but the fact that I can’t be sure is more telling than anything else. I tend to be fairly generous in terms of interpreting the quality of films, but the lack of character development overall left me scrambling for something to hold on to. The narrative, managing to be both convoluted and deceptively straightforward, left a lot to be desired that even the lush backdrop and gorgeous visual effects couldn’t make up for.
Despite that, the setting is the most compelling feature this film has to offer. Maybe if it had featured a different, more well rounded set of characters–– that were allowed more than one defining feature apiece––I’d be more willing to give it a hearty recommendation. With such a strong, female driven cast, the character dynamic (and Lena’s central struggle) shouldn’t have felt so archaic. The way Alex Garland handles gender dynamics, mental health, and even sexuality rings hollow in the prolonged silences of the film. No one has feelings, no one can express anything other than “Wow this is horrifying”, and ultimately it leaves a lot to be desired.
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Picking up on how “no one has feelings,” there is a real tonal singularity to Annihilation which boils down to a dire self-seriousness. The most frustrating thing about the mainstream success of these “artsy” sci-fi flicks is that there’s so many of them, they’re no fun, and they are so sparse to the point where they become nearly incomprehensible. There is a difference between poetic subtlety and complete invisibility. That’s not to say that science fiction can’t be slow or contemplative, but it has to have something to really say, as opposed to a few colorful flourishes and quickly dismissed, bad monologues about the nature of self-destruction. One of the characters comes hilariously close to saying “in the end, we all annihilate ourselves.” The few times Annihilation does try to provide a legitimate theme it trips over itself trying to get it out.
Ultimately the real antagonist in Annihilation isn’t the Shimmer, or the upsettingly mutated creatures that exist inside–although keep an eye out for the bear-thing that is currently haunting my nightmares–but the lack of true humanity shown by any of the main characters. Or any of the side characters. Or anyone, really. This could have been the best sci-fi film to come out in a while, but between the undue attention to flashback sequences where you learn nothing and the complete lack of character development, the only thing worth watching is the last twenty or so minutes. Arguably, that could have been the beginning of a much more compelling plot, provided that Lena is allowed to express any emotion besides an oddly placid kind of anger.
Cameron: Annihilation is not very good, but if you show up 90 minutes late to your showtime, you will find a very interesting short film nestled in a messy two hour feature.
Trailer courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Alison Kaitcer | My favorite character was the Silver Surfer | KXSU Arts Reporter
Cameron Fairchild | The Real Annihilation was the Friends We Made Along the Way | KXSU Arts Reporter