Annihilation (2018)

*. 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.

10 thoughts on “Annihilation (2018)

  1. Tom Moody

    Thanks for this assessment. I will probably skip this. In addition to SF, the VanderMeer books flirted with occult horror and I think it’s a flaw that he ultimately couldn’t say whether the creepy goings-on were a good or bad thing. This problem goes all the way back the granddad of stories about mysterious “zones,” the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (the source for Stalker).
    The Zone in that book was on balance, malevolent, but the authors left it for readers to decide that. Stanislaw Lem argued that the topsy-turvy landscape and its perverse effects on humans was either an invasion or failed attempt by more “advanced” beings. To suggest it’s all just about “change” is kind of like when a boss adopts a bad policy in the workplace and shrugs it off with the cliche, “the only thing constant is change.” It’s weaselly.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I enjoyed VanderMeer’s books, but at the end I was left a bit puzzled as to what they had been about. Maybe I’ll give them another go sometime, if I ever have enough time. I don’t think VanderMeer was trying to riff on Roadside Picnic that much, though I’m sure he had it in mind. I do think Garland, however, was thinking of Tarkovsky here, and coming up empty. Or maybe not entirely empty, but not coming up with much. I guess some people found it profound, but with Garland (thus far anyway) I’ve always had the sense that there’s less going on than he wants us to think there is.

  2. Tom Moody

    Agreed about Garland. Clearly he thinks he’s a science fiction maestro. His work has the portentousness of Kubrick without the probing talent.
    VanderMeer talks about “working through Lovecraft” to arrive at his contemporary version, which also seems boastful for an indecisive writer. With HPL the reader is always sure what kind of forces are at work — malignly indifferent ones!
    To me any story of a mysterious, quarantined, uninhabited “zone” that has puzzling/disturbing effects on visitors, objects or technology or forces that must be “contained,” and nearby research facilities dedicated to Zone Studies is a Roadside Picnic story. I actually prefer the book to Tarkovsky’s movie (even though the Strugatskys scripted it) but that’s another discussion.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I’ve had Stalker sitting here by my desk for months now thinking I should get around to doing a write-up on it, but it always seems like too big a job. Roadside Picnic is a very interesting book, though on balance I think maybe I like the movie a bit better. It just goes on a bit long.

  3. Tom Moody

    It’s too long, and the weird Zone phenomena described with such imagination by the authors couldn’t be depicted (even with CGI, if it were attempted today). All those bizarre, physics-defying machines, and the occultish enigmas such as revived corpses and people encountering runs of bad luck were the soul of the story, for me. Just when you think it couldn’t get weirder, it gets weirder. In Stalker the mysterious stuff is suggested with atmosphere — landscape, photography of the abandoned factory, and long pregnant pauses where the Stalker stares off into space.
    There is a recent re-translation of Picnic that I recommend if you haven’t read it — by Olena Bormashenko. It’s a bit smoother and clearer than the old Pocket Books edition (although it’s possible that earlier mistranslations made the book seem more alien).

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yes, I made some notes on that translation when it came out. I don’t think I ever read the earlier version:

      I agree with what you say about Tarkovsky’s film. I felt especially let down by the ending. But then there’s that graveyard of military hardware that has stuck in my head more than any CGI would have, and as I recall he does a dolly shot of garbage lying in a ditch that makes it seem magical. Not many other directors could have pulled that off!

      I keep hearing that there’s a good new translation of Lem’s Solaris out there somewhere that’s supposed to be much better than the English translation that’s been around forever (and which is said to be not very good). But I haven’t been able to find it.

  4. Tom Moody

    Apologies — I did read your Roadside Picnic review. I like what you said about the likelihood of Harmont being in Canada!
    I have the new Solaris translation if you want it. Looking around the big e-bookstores it appears Jeff Bezos must have a lock on the book rights (to be published in electronic form only). It’s still available (in the US at least) as an (ugh) Kindle book. The translator is Bill Johnston and it’s very good. The publisher is Pro Auctore Wojciech Zemek.
    The Joanna Kilmartin translation (which I read ages ago and is still around) translates a French edition that was translated from Polish. Amazing that’s how most of us encountered this important book.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I’ve always wondered about that Johnston translation of Solaris. I heard about it years ago and every now and then I go looking for it but I don’t think it’s ever actually been published as a book (I mean a physical book; I don’t have an e-reader so I can’t take you up on your kind offer). I don’t understand what the problem is. According to Wikipedia they’ve “been attempting to overcome legal difficulties.” I read a few stories about it to try and get more information but they all said pretty much the same. I guess the publisher has the rights and doesn’t want the book translated (because if they did they could have done it themselves by now).

      It’s interesting that Lem didn’t care for Tarkovsky’s adaptation, but it seems Tarkovsky was working from a botched Russian translation. I love the movie though. I mean Tarkovsky’s movie. Soderbergh’s 2002 version didn’t do anything for me. But that will have to be another update.

  5. Tom Moody

    Tarkovsky’s Solaris is excellent. He took out the unfilmable parts of the book (which are integral to the story) but managed to substitute enough of his own kind of poetry to make it a fair bargain — while remaining true to the “human” side of Lem’s tale.
    I bought the Johnston translation in 2015 after reading a review describing it as new, so it’s interesting to hear it’s been kicking around a while. It’s hard to imagine that the family, the estate, or the publisher actually *wants* a twice-translated version out there as “definitive.” Maybe Lem pronounced it adequate and someone is clinging to that.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think the Johnston translation came out in 2011. There must be some copyright issues involved, because it first came out as an audiobook and then around a year later as an ebook. So they were allowed to publish it in those forms. But they can’t publish it as a book. Crazy that they can’t get this sorted out.


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