Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

27 March 2018

Annihilation and Alex Garland's Big Ideas

Annihilation has a lot of good ideas – well, it has one or two good ideas, but the film is a failure. The thing in its entirety just doesn't work. The movie wants to ask us to think about being, about what cells are and what it means to be an I if our cells mutate constantly. Annihilation uses the fact that our cells deteriorate over our lifespans to ask us to think about what it would mean to instead become something else, to become something new and different than whatever we are. This is all good and well, and it is actually quite an interesting question.

But, in the first place, Natalie Portman is the wrong actress to get us to think about these questions. She is primarily a reactive performer, and so she doesn't appear to be thinking actively about the questions the film poses. Instead she seems simply to respond to whatever the film throws at her. It didn't attack me; it mirrored me, she says of The Shimmer, late in the film, and that's what Portman does, too. She looks seriously and anxiously at whatever is just out of the frame, but she doesn't really do much more.

In the second place, Annihilation sort of wants to be a monster movie, but then it just can't quite keep it up. Whenever the monsters appear out of the Shimmer (and there are something like four or five of these sequences) I was loving this movie. The Shimmer (whatever it is) creates new things by mixing DNA (this is in the trailer, so don't act like I'm spoiling anything), and so we get to see these crazy looking hybrid monsters and strange (occasionally beautiful) lichens and flowers and trees. There are some even weirder monsters in the film's third act. But, the film disposes of these beautiful things easily, and although Portman stares at them and takes DNA samples, she, like the movie, doesn't really seem interested in whatever version of cell division is happening within the space/creature/Shimmer.

And then there's the ending, which is frustrating and easy. I won't spoil this, but Annihilation opts for an uncomplicated, obvious ending, that left me bored. This ending is no more interesting than the last Alien movie's stupid finale. (One is reminded, too, of Ex Machina's ill-considered ending.)

Still, the visuals are really cool, and (as with Alex Garland's last movie) I spent lots of the movie pondering the particular ontological query that the film proposes. The violence in the film, too, is exciting to watch (this was true of Ex Machina, as well). Garland, it seems to me, is fascinated by both being and by actions designed to destroy that being. His films seem to come alive when they focus on either of these things.

If only Annihilation spent more time thinking about the questions it poses; instead it opts for bad storytelling and a cliché finish.