*. I read, and reviewed, Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation (the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy) when it came out. Even though I knew it had been optioned, I was still surprised when I heard they were actually going to make a movie out of it.
*. Knowing where Annihilation came from, however, is not a big help in coming to a better understanding of its various mysteries. I say that for a couple of reasons. In the first place, VanderMeer likes to work in a new genre that usually goes under the name of Weird fiction, which is a blend of fantasy and science fiction (mostly) that delights in being provokingly obscure. Even after finishing the trilogy I wasn’t entirely sure what it had been about.
*. The second reason knowing the book doesn’t prepare you for the movie is because writer-director Alex Garland was just doing his own thing anyway, only looking to recreate something of the dreamlike atmosphere of the novel without following its plot too closely. I actually didn’t remember the book that well, but watching the movie I was sure it was nothing like it.
*. In any event, I don’t think this is a big problem because the difficulty of Annihilation (the movie) has, I think, been greatly overstated. There are some basic points that are left ambiguous, but they are not the kind of challenging puzzles that, for example, Weird fiction likes to play with. They’re just more or less known unknowns.
*. One example is the nature of the alien force. Lomax, the man questioning Lena in the film’s frame, is convinced that whatever is in Area X has come here for a purpose. There is, however, no clear indication of any intelligence at work in the Shimmer. You can speculate about its purpose if you want, but it’s not even clear if it arrived by design or by accident. Is that a spaceship that lands in Florida or an asteroid?
*. Another example is the question of whether Kane and Lena are clones at the end. Well, if even they don’t know then how should we? Kyle Smith: “Making movies steeped in vagueness these days is proving to be an excellent way to earn critical praise, but being artfully ambiguous strikes me as a way to cover for not being able to finish the job.”
*. From the evidence the film provides it looks as though Kane is a replicant and Lena is merely infected in some way, but it’s not even clear if this is a distinction with a difference.
*. So there’s ambiguity there, sure. But I don’t see this as a film of big ideas, or as particularly thought-provoking. It’s just open ended without being intellectually challenging. In fact, I’m not even sure the alien is all that interesting. It’s like the Earth has developed a tumor that’s messing around with the stuff of life, creating mutants and mimics. But from that premise, what follows?
*. I’m not sure what Garland was trying to get out of his actors. Jennifer Jason Leigh is usually a favourite of mine but she plays the part of Dr. Ventress as though she’s overdosing on tranquilizers. I’m guessing that’s the way Garland wanted her to play it, but I can’t understand why. Oscar Isaac as Kane strikes me as being terrible, even when he’s not a pod person. As for Natalie Portman, she seems to have been told to just act puzzled. She furrows her brow a lot and appears to be vaguely upset at what’s going on, but it’s not like she’s angry or on a mission of vengeance, which is what I thought was the point.
*. The script is not good. Watching it a second time I was surprised at how bad much of the dialogue is, and how many scenes are included that don’t serve any function at all. There’s also a problem with members of the team acting like the idiots in an idiot-plot horror movie. The worst of these is the paramedic Anya, who hysterically doesn’t want to watch the video of the gut python again because she just knows it’s fake. The plan for having a guard stationed out by herself at the military base was another headscratcher. There didn’t seem to be any point to that but to allow someone to get killed. Another awkward device is having the team find video recordings explaining what happened to the previous expedition. Why? Just because that was what was required to move things along.
*. The aspect of Annihilation that got the most praise was its look. I wasn’t as impressed. It has a crayon colourfulness that’s pretty without being threatening. Meanwhile, the CGI strikes me as very bad. That alligator is awful, as are the pair of deer Lena surprises in the woods. I was expecting to be blown away and I wasn’t.
*. It’s a movie that tended to get strong responses. Meaning people loved it or hated it. I don’t see where it rises to that level, or why it should have been so divisive. It has some good parts, with the talking bear being the standout scene, but overall it struck me as only mildly interesting and overlong. Maybe Denis Villeneuve could have made something out of it, but Garland has always seemed to me to be someone who is trying too hard to seem smarter than he is. Really, if he’d stuck more closely to VanderMeer’s novel he would have probably had a better movie. But he couldn’t be bothered.
*. That may seem harsh on Garland, but watching this film I was reminded of a lot of what I said about Ex Machina. About, for example, how “His [Garland’s] work often takes an interest in science and philosophy, but never digs very deep.” Or the comparison to Tarkovsky (even more glaring, and to his detriment, in this film). Or how the direction is “formal and dull though I suspect this was mainly by design.”
*. To borrow from the film’s mythology, Garland is like the mimics in the Shimmer. He has a notion as to what a great SF movie is supposed to look like, but while he tries in various ways to copy the style and mannerisms of Tarkovsky and Kubrick and Ridley Scott he misses everything that made them special. Annihilation is a decent imitation or clone of a good SF movie, but I just wasn’t buying in.