Everything that could go wrong at the movie theaters happened to me and I still loved Annihilation. Stupidly, I was reading reviews before I went and with all of the lacklustre critiques out there I wasn’t sure if Annihilation was going to satisfy my mind or mood.
I reminded myself that neither Alex Garland or Natalie Portman had ever disappointed me, and ponied up the dough. I also bought a popcorn to drown any possible remorse I might have in the salty warmth of yellow chemical sludge.
There’s a lot of good that can be said about Annihilation, beginning with its impeccable cast and the provoking characters they portray. It is most certainly a visual feast; with the lush and verdant Florida swamp setting, and its trippy digital icing of rainbow light refractions and bizzare floral blooms. Annihilation is a mind bending, psychological science fiction. There’s also a touch of body horror and a few jump inducing thrills, but even with all this going for it, the film is a tough sell.
Black Panther and the warrior women of Wakanda are still reigning supreme in the hearts of movie goers, and for good reason. Paramount’s timing couldn’t be more detrimental; putting a slow burn, intellectual sci-fi with next to zero leading men on its heels at the box office is a certain death sentence for Annihilation. Apart from myself, the theater was empty. Until…
I had my choice of chairs and got a good one, dead center, first mid level row and behind the railing so you can put your feet up; but then a couple came in and seated themselves directly next to me. And I mean right next to me. No buffer seat. No courtesy “beg your pardon.” After a moment, they decided they wanted to move past me down the aisle and I was more than happy to oblige, but once to the opposite side of me, they did it again.
I immediately suspected I was going to be watching Annihilation seated next to a pair of aliens that might rip their husks off and show a hideous spectacle of true form at the film’s climax, and I would die never knowing the ending. I picked up my popcorn and moved a seat over to be an example of proper Earth ettiquette, but not so far away that I might offend our otherworldly visitors.
I had settled into an acceptable level of comfort by the third preview, when the talking started. I’m not a taking nazi when it comes to previews, it is acceptable to talk quietly and briefly about what looks good, or bad, or so bad it might be good. Once the opening credits roll, however, I expect people to shut their mouths. The talking did not cease and it largely consisted of ignorant plot, style, and character commentary.
Normally, this would at the very least compel me to issue a librarian hiss of disapproval, but within minutes of Annihilation I found myself so absorbed by the film that the couple’s remarks became peripheral. It was even a little enlightening as to why it is so hard for seriously cool and smart science fiction movies to succeed at the box office.
Chronologically, the story is not linear. It jumps forward and backward in time with the mind of its protagonist, Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-army biology professor, as she details her experience inside quarantine. Her enlisted husband went missing for a year while on a top secret mission, but he suddenly appeared at home, with his mental and physical health in freefall. Having gone A.W.O.L. while on assignment, both he and Lena are taken for containment, treatment, and questioning.
Lena finds out from Doctor Ventress (Jennifer Jason Liegh) that her husband Kane and his team had embarked on a mission inside a peculiar phenomena called “the Shimmer”. The nucleus of the Shimmer radiates from a meteor crash site at the base of a coastal lighthouse and is slowly expanding to encompass sea, swamp, and small towns. No signal can penetrate it’s boundary from within or without, and so far no creature has come out of it alive, except for Lena’s husband.
In her talks with psychologist and newest expedition leader, Ventress, Lena displays the intellect, training, and a kind of self sabotage motivation necessary to join the next team going into the Shimmer. The team, all of them women, have had some tragically onset loneliness in their lives and don’t see themselves as having anything much to go back to in life. They are all ex-military, and have volunteered to take an indefinite amount of time away from their current professions in either medical or scientific fields.
Paramount recognized Annihilation to be a hard sell among early test audiences and made the decision to give it a modest release of only 2,012 U.S. theaters, while selling the film’s international rights to Netflix for direct to stream viewing. While this decision will certainly be a devastating blow to the film’s bottom line, it is somewhat understandable.
Annihilation is a bit like being made to eat your vegetables while on acid, and this is probably the biggest hurdle it faces when attempting to connect with the typical audience member. It lands delicately and directly on the innermost feelings of depression and nihilism, forces you to ponder some tricky laws of biology and physics, while the journey into a prismatic mutation phenomenon leaves you slack jawed and thirsty for more.
But I found Annihilation to be a refreshingly moody and ambiguous brain teaser packed with spectacular characters at the edge of sanity. In a world weary with brightly costumed, overly confident, super people punching their way through fast paced sensory overloads, films like Annihilation can elevate genres and minds.
Image Credits: Paramount Pictures, Netflix