Annihilation (2018) starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tessa Thompson. Directed by Alex Garland.
Based on the uninspired trailer and (some) overtly political reviews and reviewers, I, and most of the universe, completely ignored this movie upon its release.
That was wrong.
Annihilation is a relatively dark science fiction film, considering the cast and budget—but due to genre crossover, there are a handful of excellent doses of horror and gore. I hate to spoil a good creature, and I won’t. However, much as The Ritual was good to great, then added a fantastic beast, just bear with this movie… and you shall be rewarded.
The plot and story are familiar but not boring; the cast is ensemble, amazing, and utilized extremely well. Oh yes, and it’s the excellent feminist movie “lady” Ghostbusters tried to be. Plot points can be haggled here and there, and the ending will not satisfy everyone (self included), but the overall recommendation is: see this movie.
The end! I can hear Steve Barnard giving this the thumbs-up. Too bad, Steve… I got ahead of myself.
I need to perform an autopsy on one of the better movies of 2018. Yup, I’m calling it in June. Wait, what? Autopsy?
Yeah, sorry, but it’s mandatory for a movie that tanked harder than… Tank Girl? A movie that was (kind of?) a critical darling. That boasts an enviable 87% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Other weights in Annihilation’s favor: it features two female actors (also, one male actor) from recent billion-dollar Marvel franchise films. And the Rebel pilot leader from recent Star Wars billion-dollar franchise films. And the spirited female in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, played in marked, excellent contrast here. And this all based on a bestselling novel…. trilogy. Helmed by a director blooded in science fiction (Ex Machina) and horror (28 Days Later).
How in the hell did this go so wrong? Or wait—did it?
The answer is… yes. Grip those chest scissors and grab a bone saw, because when the production budget is $45M and the domestic gross tallies to $32M… but wait, you say, international often saves movies like this, right? Fine. Add another $10M abroad. Beware the craters, people, because from a financial standpoint, this bombed harder than the Enola Gay.
A full autopsy would take forever, but it won’t, because I am going with my opinion, which is subjective; with my first impression, which is subject to change; with my gut, which is dismayingly objective and immutable.
In a nutshell, here is what happened: Annihilation got creamed due to (unfair) audience expectations, a bleak tone with a chubby run-time (why hello there, Bladerunner 2049), a budget that could not handle the effects requested, and flashing through time in an already complex film: the direction added a framing device and numerous debrief/interview interruptions to the action and immersion, various flashbacks or nightmares and/or hallucinations did the same, start to finish. Despite star power, the combination of actors did not advance much past what each brought to the table.
If that sounds like a fatal collection of flaws, it is… and it is not. Nothing can repair its box office numbers, but dollars don’t equal enjoyment, so let’s fix this movie for BluRay, yeah?
At 115 minutes and with a tight effects budget, my Annihilation the BluRay slices away the lengthy, “trippy” CG that contributes nothing. Next, we’ll stitch a few time-related plot contrivances into more linear places (or we will otherwise find a way to be clear as to whether the scene is a hallucination, dream, memory, etc). That done, we can polish the remaining 85 minutes of faster-paced, well-acted, fabulous CG remnants into something that withstands the test of time for decades.
Because this would. It really would. Chop away, Mr. Garland: the audience can handle it. Please? We can. The “Shimmer” sounds like the “Shining” (audibly) and it looks like a backyard soap bubble. Five seconds of screen time there is enough. It gets… way more than that. The “Shimmer” soap is a barrier and… that’s it? Audiences can dig what a barrier signifies. Outside. Inside. Outside.
As to the last snip of the autopsy… audience expectations. This is a more difficult problem for Annihilation, or it was at launch. Why? Because this is a very “political” movie that politics… forgot?
For everyone reading this in France, there’s this place called Hollywood that has a habit of clapping hysterically for (itself) politically-charged productions. It doesn’t matter which way you lean—when a movie is primarily billed as “important” for socio-political reasons, it will suck nuggets nine times out of ten. By those standards, Annihilation “should” have been a loud, overhyped, must-see movie with crazy buzz it did not fully deserve. Someone saw this, as the film’s late-stage marketing sprinted after the “Ghostbusters” demographic and visual look in terms of the poster, trailer, and blurb.
So this “should” have been a hot movie, good or bad, and then it should have had a chance to prove it was more than a poster. It is notable that Black Panther was #1 (and in recent release) when Annihilation zoomed to… #4 on the domestic charts? Ouchie. Why this “chick flick” failed is easy to identify, if not understand: instead of the expected proclamations that “this is the #MeToo #TimesUp movie America needs” sort of fanfare, Annihilation was launched with the fervor that was previously Ripley’s Alien domain… which is to say, it was launched into space.
Because space is filled with total silence.
Most of me loves that, because it strips a high-quality movie of non-movie politics, and that’s a win. On the other hand, I’d like to see more movies like this, and losing money is not the best way to fire-up that wagon.
Since the usual suspects didn’t rave, and because the apparently desirable quotas were surely hit, I will rave briefly… Count on your fingers here: the number of high-quality movies that are 1) believably ethnically diverse with a 2) nearly all-female primary cast, 3) one a lesbian, 4) a couple eating healthily, 5) none of which is a former stripper or anything of the kind is… did you get past one?
Three male characters from Annihilation remain in my memory, not one of them “white” and not one of them questioned by my in-movie brain as regards to casting or rationale. Only one male was important to the plot, and only as the sort of pawn Elpidia Carrillo from Predator would recognize (sorry Elpi, you were amazing). What else? How about little or no “pretty” makeup on actresses who are not in their teens or twenties? It’s almost like someone on the set said: hey look, mutated large predatory wildlife—let’s skip the lipstick! These small touches are also balanced appropriately, which avoids the Rambo problem evident in many “gender power” movies. Example: a female character hefts a machine gun, notes its impracticality due to weight (preach!) and leaves it on a table, unfired. Just like the guy who previously left it there presumably did. I fully expected this to be foreshadowing of a future hip-firing, screaming, “until the barrel slags” scene. Nope. Well done.
So was there hamfisted messaging? No, not really. Yet there is an interesting depth here for those wanting “more” of a certain message. Example: the mission destination is established, early-on, as getting “to the lighthouse”—literally, they need to get… to the lighthouse. Those who are familiar with Virginia Woolf, a famously self-empowered woman author, can enjoy a hat-tip to Woolf’s famously “feminist” novel, To the Lighthouse. As before, though, there is not a single moment in which Annihilation gets on a soapbox.
Yes, it is on the verge of arthouse in its conceptual and visual conceits at times, and the… but no, no, sorry.
Remember: launched in silence.
Well, it would suck to be the backers—but for the rest of us, the neat thing about great movies is that bad marketing or an untimely drop date can be ignored, can fade, or might no longer apply when the movie is revisited with fresh eyes, months or years later.
Annihilation deserves that treatment, and a view from anyone open to the genre(s) it straddles.
Notice I have not said Natalie Portman is a biologist whose husband was—blah blah. Just watch it already. The movie does a fine job exploring themes and questions along the lines of “how much evolution can occur before I am not me?” as well as: beginnings, life, death, humanity, change, tradition, morals, destructive creative, and so forth. It’s a testament to the film’s quality that these questions don’t feel tacked-on, as they regularly do. It’s the core of the movie.
Also not-annoying: it is not an impulse or a contravention of the groundwork laid when the female team goes into the Shimmer. Wow is that a dumb damn name. Shimmer. Shining. Shimmy. Sham-wow. Whatever. The girl-group logic is established like so: multiple teams of military-focused males have already gone in, and they failed. Let’s give science-leaning females a shot. Bingo. Works for me.
Admittedly, outside of Portman, the five characters are one phrase deep, following the name, occupation, and problem format. But, in a surprise bonus move, few to none of the primary character traits ever “matter” conventionally. It’s surprisingly refreshing, because genre fans are surprisingly forgiving (that, or they hate 99% of movies). If you learn that character X lost her kid in a tornado of knives, when faced with a tailor-made issue, character X “should” do this. Not here. You were a junkie? You were married? You have ingrown toenails? Oh well. The action still falls within a wide circle of believability, to include a satisfying reveal of the motivation and acting choices for one character (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in particular, but the actions and reactions are not confined by plot or individual traits to the neatness of “you are defined by this phrase” nonsense. And whatever has been established to that point, a nice line opens the final act, and it delivers three characters from even these original and generic description-definitions… in a single line of dialogue. Boom! Well said, Tessa.
As to the final scene(s). Survive the beginning, love the well-padded middle, and get drunk enough to fight over the ending. The budget can be heard straining for about ten minutes there. The home stretch is… polarizing. A cheap out for a movie of this caliber, I thought, but the ending can be defended, and, if nothing else, the film didn’t build to a freeze-frame or idiotic twist (unlike the pile of burning trash that was The Girl with All the Gifts).
Science fiction, horror, and a dash of “you go girl” have been around for decades, but there are few movies that do not fail on at least one of these three fronts.
Annihilation does not… so get out there and rent, buy, or otherwise enjoy a stellar cast as they battle genetic mashups, gender and genre clichés, and ruin any shot at a sequel thanks to rotten ticket sales (a good thing).