Annihilation was one of the movies I was really looking forward to, this year, and I wasn’t disappointed by it. Visually striking and beautiful, which is perhaps to be expected from director Alex Garland. Also thoughtful, interesting and full of characters that are largely better developed than I would expect, given the number of them.
Five different women with their own idiosyncrasies and their own voices travel through a dream-like reality and carry us with them on their journey. As I told a friend just before I saw it, Annihilation is a woman-led ensemble action scifi horror movie, and is therefore what I would like to pump directly into my veins to wake up every morning and keep myself vital.
I know that there were questions of whitewashing the movie. Other people have discussed that with more depth of knowledge than I could. It does, however star five women of different ages, all of whom are portrayed with their own strengths and weaknesses, most of them are scientists. None are sexualized outside of the snippets of actual sex scenes we see Natalie Portman’s character in, and those are well-placed in an emotional context.
So: problematic, yes. But I enjoyed it anyway. I liked seeing women as strong and as intellectual on the screen. I liked seeing them get to be emotional and seeing the ways they dealt with those emotions.
In its treatment of women it was a nice change from the only other of Garland’s films I’ve seen so far, Ex Machina. That bought hard into some deeply irritating sexist tropes. It may have been attempting commentary on them, but I’m not convinced it succeeded.
I keep thinking I should watch Ex Machina again, considering that, unlike the majority of movies I didn’t enjoy watching the first time, it has really stuck in my head and kept me thinking, which I believe is a point in its favor. However, there are so many things on my to-watch list, I don’t know when I’ll be able to make that happen.
But I digress.
Like in Ex Machina, setting is like an additional character in the film, driving the plot forward in the way that setting rarely does. I got a very palpable sense of the the landscape our characters ranged through. And that landscape developed throughout the film, carrying the film’s themes of creative destruction and transformational journeys within itself as well as passing it on to the people moving through it.
It is deeply a science fiction movie, full of ideas and lines of thought that raise many more questions than they answer. The plot doesn’t fully resolve at the end of the film. I don’t know if that’s an artistic choice or because Garland is planning to adapt the other two novels in Jeff VanderMeer’s southern reach trilogy into films as well. After seeing this one, I hope he does. And I’d like to read the novels themselves, though I understand there are lots of differences between the screen version and the original written one (as there almost always are).
Annihilation is a rich tapestry, with a lot to take in. More, I suspect, than can be absorbed in one viewing. I certainly would be open to repeat watchings to try to take in more of its layers.
It is also very definitely a horror film. Things that happen in the dream-like, ethereal landscape are in hard contrast to the landscape itself. The horrific things that happen (and how they happen) are frequently vital clues for our band of scientists on the screen, moving the plot forward with the information they bring.
In the film landscape, there have been a slate of Big Idea Scifi films over the past several years. And I am in love with them. In love, really with the whole new hard scifi film movement that brought us Gravity, Arrival, Interstellar, and The Martian. I would definitely place Annihilation in this movement as well.
As much as I enjoy a good space opera (a fuckton, for the record) it’s nice to see some science fiction cinema that has a lot more intellectual depth and which sticks a little closer to home. It’s nice to see some bigger budgets invested in Idea Genre Fiction in general. I hope we’re starting to get past the era of snobbery in which genre fiction isn’t taken as seriously as ‘realistic’ fiction.
All fiction that works deeply for the audience is based more in emotional truth than in factual reality. Science fiction and horror can bring us just as much emotional truth and deeply relevant themes as any random award-seeking biopic or Work of Art.
The upshot of all this is that I enjoyed Annihilation a lot. It was effective as both scifi and horror. It had lots of intellectual badass women characters. It’s beautiful and thoughtful and emotional — pretty meaty as an experience.