Sometimes I come out of a movie and can’t decide exactly how I feel. Annihilation definitely left me with that reaction, but in a slightly different way. Most of the time, these movies are heavy and complex, and take a while to sink in, but usually can be assessed in terms of the general quality. With The Killing of a Sacred Deer, my favorite film of 2017, I felt overwhelmed when the credits began and needed time to process what I had seen and discuss it with others before I really garnered an appreciation. But even in those first moments of bewilderment walking out of the theater, I could tell you that The Killing of a Sacred Deer was excellently done, and stayed thematically and tonally cohesive. The director clearly had a vision which he faithfully executed, even if you couldn’t quite comprehend everything right away.
With Annihilation, I couldn’t really decide where on the spectrum of good and bad I landed on, in terms of my assessment, only that it was a fun, mostly good but very flawed movie. And yet I had this unshakeable indecisiveness well after I left the theater. It took the entire drive home for me to realize that I may not be sure whether the movie’s shortcomings were really shortcomings or merely subversions.
For one thing, the director of this film is Alex Garland, who directed one of the best sci-fi films of late, Ex Machina. He brings Oscar Isaac back from that film to play Kane, the husband of Natalie Portman’s character, Lena. A year prior to the events of the film (bits of which we see in flashbacks), he went on a top-secret mission and vanished. He then returns in a fugue-like state, and both of them are taken to a top secret government facility. There, she learns that an asteroid or comet crashed into a lighthouse nearby, and a disaster zone which they refer to as “the shimmer” has been growing around it ever since. She joins a group of women scientists to discover the source of this phenomenon in order to find out what really happened to her husband.
This type of premise has shown to be fruitful in films like Arrival, where unknown forces appear on Earth and are dealt with via tentative but open-minded measures. In that film and in this one, there’s a female protagonist who goes on an emotional journey which mirrors her scientific exploration. The problem is that, in Annihilation, that journey is unclear, and the themes which arise from her experience seem underdeveloped and scattered. Multiple viewings might clarify some of the film’s philosophical points, but there’s still a void left by the initial viewing. The abstract parts are stretched too thin.
The tone also gets messy here and there. Sometimes there’s a fantastical and magical feeling, mostly evoked by the colorful production design, one of the film’s indisputable strengths. Other times, disgust and horror are forced in like a scene from The Thing, with nasty and terrifying creatures making unexpected and unwanted entrances. But this is where I start questioning the intent of the filmmaker. In one way, there seems to be an attempt to take good horror movie, science fiction, and fantasy ideas and squish them into one movie, haphazardly. In another sense, it seems like a genre-subversion on multiple levels, where beauty and ugliness are meant to contrast each other and complicate the visitor-conqueror dichotomy of alien-invasion films, as well as concepts of body horror. This is a film where turning into a plant-person is actually supposed to be beautiful and sweet. Catharsis gets mixed with demise and destruction. So while this bizarre combination of tone, style, and perspective may weaken the movie for some, it’s also what makes it stand out as radically different than some of the things we’re used to seeing. And I can’t help but defend it against potential critics for that reason. | Nic Champion