Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)

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A sparkly meteor screams across the sky and crashes into a lighthouse. Three years later, Oscar Isaac shows up in Natalie Portman’s house. He’s her husband and has been missing for three years, is acting oddly and suddenly becomes very ill. On the way to the hospital, the two are captured and brought to a secret location, the edge of a shimmering wall of. . . something. Isaac escaped from the something and Portman heads into it, part of a team of women led by Jennifer Jason Leigh and including Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny. What they find in there is both easy to figure out (stuff is mutating), beautiful and scary and weird (stuff is mutating) and inexplicable (most of the why and a bunch of other side mysteries), explored in a mostly unsatisfactory blend of arthouse stillness and genre thriller scares, part of a burgeoning subgenre of sci-fi films that I suppose function as a counterweight to the more populist nonsense of superhero sc-fi. Director Alex Garland’s last film, Ex Machina, is a prime example, along with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (and his Blade Runner too, probably, I haven’t seen it) and so on. These films give an aura of respectability and complexity to an otherwise disreputable genre, and Annihilation is basically Predator for people who think Predator is dumb, but without any of the qualities that actually make Predator good (structure, pacing, action, coherence). Or Stalker for people who think Stalker is too arty and obscure.

While Annihilation is following its women on a weird mission plot, it’s mostly pretty good. The environment is new even if the situations are not: the group will of course be picked off one-by-one, either by unexpected creatures or their own tendency toward madness. Interspersed are flashbacks to Portman’s former life with Isaac, before he went on his mission into the unknown, which are mostly useless, designed to ground her character in the boring pyschology of Hollywood screenwriting convention, where women are only allowed to be motivated by something involving their role as wife and/or mother. These are actually flashbacks within a flashback, as the entire film is actually a dramatization of the story of her experience told by Portman to a team of radiation suit investigators led by Benedict Wong. How reliable a narrator Portman is, though, is not explored, potentially destabilizing the whole film, if not outright rendering the whole thing pointless. Is everything we’re seeing in her head, or is it what she’s telling Wong? Are the flashbacks real and the other stuff fake? Is she telling Wong about her relationship with her husband? Is it all phony, a story designed to satisfying her inquisitors but not actually the truth? I guess we’ll find out in the sequel? There are a lot of these little “mysteries” in Annihilation, things left unexplained that I suppose one could expend some brain energy trying to figure out, but I don’t know that it would be worth it, since the central mystery is both easily guessed and not that interesting, and it’s probably rendered moot by the film’s ending anyway. I’m curious about the tattoo that Portman and Rodriguez seem to share, for example, but I’d have to watch the movie again to try to solve it. But that’s probably not going to happen.

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