I saw Annihilation by accident. I was simply checking the movie listings because I wanted to treat myself for finishing the rough draft of a freelance project, and I saw it listed at my local Alamo Drafthouse. Huh, I thought, didn’t realize that was out already. Hell, the only reason I’d even known it was a thing and seen a trailer was because people were talking about it on Twitter. It never made a peep at any of my local theaters.
Which is, I can say now that I’ve seen the movie, particularly egregious malfeasance on the part of Paramount.
Studios sometimes try to bury their own movies, not bothering to advertise them in any kind of effective why. Screen Gems did that to Proud Mary recently, which was a movie I found enjoyable but could see the serious flaws in. There is no earthly reason I can think of that Annihilation deserved this treatment, except perhaps for sheer, bloody failure of creativity and genre understanding when it came time to figure out how to market it. Yes, I get that any more, scifi in a movie is assumed to be some kind of action and special effects tentpole film, and it would have been a mistake to market it that way–but there are other scifi movies out there, and they can and have done well.
Annihilation is good. It’s gorgeous, creepy, and intellectually chewy. It has people in the cast they could have used to advertise it, namely Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac. And it has an audience out there and waiting for it, if Paramount had just bothered to reach: people who liked Ex Machina, the other movie that Alex Garland wrote and directed. People who liked 28 Days Later. PEOPLE WHO LIKED ARRIVAL. And you cannot tell me that last is a small or meaningless audience.
Which is the long way for me to say that you ought to see this film, if you like movies like 28 Days Later and Ex Machina, or films in the same vein as Arrival but significantly creepier. Annihilation deserves so much better than it’s getting.
Annihilation, starts with Lena (Natalie Portman) being debriefed by people in biohazard suits; she’s the sole survivor of an expedition. She takes us back to the beginning: she’s an army veteran-turned academic whose husband, Sergeant Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for over a year. Just as she’s begun forcing herself to let him go, Kane shows up at their house, with no memory of how he got there or where he’s been–and immediately drops into the brink of death, vomiting up blood and having seizures. Lena and Kane are taken from the ambulance on the way to the hospital and spirited away to Area X, an army base just outside a zone covered with some sort of prismatic light effect called the Shimmer. Lena finds out that Kane had been in a mission into the Shimmer for the last year; it’s a zone that people go into but never come out of, until Kane, and it’s steadily growing. Lena volunteers to go into the zone with the next team, made entirely of women (Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, and Jennifer Jason Leigh), to try to find out what happened to her husband and seek a way to save him.
Nothing goes like you would think, inside the Shimmer.
This movie is absolutely gorgeous to begin with. As the women go deeper into the Shimmer, the landscape because stranger and more beautiful, as well as more deadly. If you can’t imagine how a lush, green landscape decorated with misty rainbows and pastel plants and blooms of fungus could seem threatening and eerie, this movie will show you. There are horrors among the wonder that had me trying to crawl out of my theater seat backwards and gave me nightmares afterwards. The film is tense, and intense, and unrelentingly strange. It imagines an a force so truly alien and primal that the question “what does it want?” is unanswerable because it presumes want to begin with.
But in among all the science fictional weirdness, there’s a deep emotional core that really gives the film its power. Each of the five women on the team has a profound break of loss in her life, and each deals with the Shimmer and the changes it brings differently, from denial to acceptance to ferocious defiance. Lena is driven by her relationship with her husband, which isn’t nearly as simple and pure as it seems from the outset and laced with questions of depression and self-destruction. In this examination of self-destruction, Tessa Thompson’s Josie and Gina Rodriguez’s Anya each steal the show in her own way, and I’m still not sure which is a bigger gut punch, the big and messy or the quiet and peaceful.
It’s not a movie that offers easy answers, but it gives you a lot to think about in terms of what brings people together and what drives them apart, and how people deal with change. Lena is an effectively unreliable narrator; the movie is filmed around stretches of missing time and it’s up to the audience to piece things together. I’m sure there are even more issues I could tease out of it, more angles I could look through; the Shimmer is a prism that refracts everything, after all. But I’d need to see it again to even know where to start.
It’s funny, because in all honesty I didn’t particularly care for Annihilation as a book when I read it for the Nebulas. Part of that might be because I listened to it as an audiobook, and that might have been a mistake. But I remember thinking that I thought it would make a better movie than book, as blasphemous as that might sound. In the book, the characters are never named, and always felt one step removed. The women in the film are much easier to connect with because they are such well-defined people, particularly Lena in all of her self-destructive humanity. But I can also tell you that if you’ve read the book, the movie is still going to have some surprises, and if you watch the movie, it’s not going to spoil the first book or the rest of the trilogy. The most intense and horrifying scenes in the movie are ones that never appeared in the book. The movie is its own entity, and the better for it.
I will say, I’m going to give the books another chance because of this as well.