Genre: Science Fiction, Horror
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Star actors: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Oscar Isaac
Central character Lena is a cellular biologist. When her husband Kane returns from a military deployment and suddenly becomes gravely ill, Lena learns about his mission. A force field referred to as the Shimmer or Area X is slowly but steadily growing and taking over the area it occupies. Concerned about what it is, what it is doing, and the possibility that it may overtake the world, the government has sent teams inside to investigate but so far no one has come out alive except Kane. Lena and a small team of women consisting of Lena, Josie, Cass, Anya, and Dr. Ventress decide to venture into Area X to see what they can learn.
It’s a typical science fiction and/or horror opening move: a small team with unclear motivations goes to a haunted house, cave, or planet to investigate a mysterious event. Once inside Area X, the group discovers that something inside Area X is causing genetic mutations in every living thing including Lena and her teammates. They work their way towards a lighthouse. In short, there’s nothing particularly special so far.
What makes Annihilation stand out from the typical horror film is its philosophical element. Sprinkled throughout the film are questions and conversations about duplication, identity, hybridity, creation, destruction, change, and the interrelationship, overlap, and confusion among them. While the philosophical underpinnings and implications of the movie are not necessarily enough to drive ticket sales for audiences who may lean more towards shock, spectacle, and simplified plotlines, it’s too bad the film doesn’t pursue its more serious topics. As Lena and Dr. Ventress have a serious discussion about those topics, a mutated bear attacks and takes Cass away. It’s as if the film interrupts itself to remind us that the primary focus is on shock and horror, not intellectual conversations and considerations.
Be that as it may Annihilation is notable for a number of reasons. Though there are plenty of disturbing moments of pure horror for those who want that, it is smarter than your typical horror movie. The main characters are all female (Kane is the only possible exception). The visuals of blended species, extravagant light displays, and defamiliarized landscapes are stunning. The movie takes risks in terms of what it expects from the audience; parts of it even seem experimental. For example, there is the confusing and captivating ending sequence in which Lena confronts what seems to be some sort of interdimensional being—it sort of looks like Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still—whose intentions are unclear. In one unnerving scene the being mirrors Lena’s motions.
David Ellison of Paramount called the movie “too intellectual” and “too complicated.” It is based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, so perhaps reading the book helps us to understand the film (though there are a number of online articles listing the differences between the two). The movie clearly sets itself up for a sequel and perhaps it will make more sense in the context of two possible sequels (as of this writing box office sales have only recouped about 12 million of its 40 million dollar budget, so those films may or may not be made).
While Annihilation may have its flaws, it’s still a level above the average horror flick and may help usher in a wave of more ambitious and cerebral horror and science fiction films.
I still buy compact discs.
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