AUTHOR’S NOTE: Since nothing new of any real note has come out into theaters, I thought I would dive back into the well once more to drag out some thoughts on a movie that I was dragged to by my wife over 3 years ago. This movie was so incredibly successful that to date, they haven’t bothered with sequels, which is fine by me. Of course, I’m sure that I’ve just jinxed that, so you’re welcome? I guess? Anyway, here is my take on a little slice of pretentious hell called Annihilation!
Judging by the flood of bad sci-fi movies that have barraged our screens over the years, do we really need another one? What more needs to be said that the quadrillion hours of Star Trek haven’t covered already? What’s left? Come to think of it, I suppose they never did have Kirk ever face the Borg, so that’s a story, I guess. But one could make the argument that perhaps the V’Ger probe in Star Trek: The Motion Picture was in fact sent out by the Borg planet so it could…assimilate with its creator! Ooooh, that’s gold right there! Blows your mind even though at the end of the day Star Trek: The Motion Picture is rather dull.
Since I’ve decided to randomly speak about dull science fiction, I had the great opportunity to witness a recent sci-fi film event on the big screen! That’s right: my wife and I found a brand-new sucker…uh, I mean babysitter, to watch our lovely brood for an eve. We jumped down our respective Bat-Poles and escaped to the local KinoMegaplex theater for dinner and a movie.
After being forced to rush through a lovely meal that took roughly the length of the director’s cut of Ben-Hur to arrive at our table, we dashed to our theater as I gripped my Junior Mints in my hand, and then plunked ourselves down to see a movie that my wife wanted to see: Annihilation. Or to convey more drama than the movie does: ANNIHILATION!!!
Yeah, that’s right, you caught it. I am blaming my bride for this whole thing. Yes, she originally said I didn’t have to go to this movie with her. But being the wizened spouse that I am, I knew that I was going if for no other reason than the chance at hearing an apology from her later. Besides, she had read the book that Annihilation was based on and hoping against hope, facts, and logic, she wanted this movie to be good or at the very least, passable.
Well, it wasn’t either of those possibilities. At least I divined that much from her grinding teeth, growling sounds, and the constant bevy of interjections that consisted of “Wha?”, “Huh?”, “No…”, and “WHAT?!” in a variety of combinations. Meanwhile I went in with absolutely no expectations and the movie certainly lived up to them. It reminded me of when this same sparkling significant other brought me to see The Golden Compass in the theater after she read that book. (Yeah, and she apologized profusely to me after that movie experience too.)
Now I never read Annihilation or any of the books in the Annihilation Gang or whatever-it’s-called series. So, without any fragment of beforehand knowledge other than witnessing a quickly forgotten trailer, what did I think of Annihilation: The Movie, Not the Book? Hm. Well. It was a movie. I think. What was I talking about again?
I don’t remember much. It is almost as if I could have been sitting in the theater for several months as opposed to several minutes. My supplies had run low, but how could that have happened? My Junior Mints had melted into an irretrievable corner of glop in the box which not only saddened me but also denoted that a period of undefined time had passed. Who was I? What was going on? Had time become an illusion and was I in the theater so long that I had regrettably missed seeing Deadpool 2? (AUTHOR’S NOTE: Oh, don’t worry; I did get to see Deadpool 2 when it was released later that year. Annihilation took away a great many things from me, but it did not take away my joy of seeing the beloved Wade Wilson on the silver screen.)
I kid Annihilation of course, seeing as how the concept of lost time was a story point in the movie. I think. Okay, the basic plot for those of you playing along at home: weird changes are happening in a now-shimmering small section of the United States. Several research teams have gone in to investigate, but no one comes out. Now a female group of female specialists who are women are going in to find out what is happening. These female women discover that an alien lifeform is somehow changing the very fabric of nature on Earth itself on a cellular level and the affected area keeps on expanding. Is the lifeform malevolent? Is this just an alien force of nature without emotion or purpose other than change for change’s sake? Should I have said SPOILER ALERT like a big baby at the beginning of the paragraph?
In general, I don’t mind science fiction movies. There’s nothing like seeing a cadre of various relatable people from various relatable backgrounds being placed into an abnormal and extraordinary situation and seeing how they react. Isn’t that a cornerstone of the science fiction market? Sure, there are clichés to either embrace or avoid, but the hope is that a retelling of the same tropes avoids the pitfalls and brings something new to the table.
At least that should be the plan. Annihilation doesn’t follow that plan. No sireebob. Annihilation follows its own way and somehow manages to come out with something else. I suppose that something else is being called “smart science fiction” because I keep seeing that phrase in overly generous reviews of the movie. Well, if “smart” means “dull”, “slow”, and/or “without purpose”, then I wholeheartedly agree.
Before this movie, I always thought that Natalie Portman only fails in science fiction movies when George Lucas writes her dialogue. Annihilation proves that to be wrong and I apologize, Mr. Lucas. Truth be told, I don’t mind Portman and think she’s a far better actress who shouldn’t have to deal with this subpar material. She did what she could, but I think the direction given was muddled. Portman just doesn’t know if she is supposed to be cold and unfeeling or if she is someone handicapped by her emotions. There’s no balance, there’s no growth, there’s no arc. Apparently, the thought was, “She’s just the lead character and that should be good enough, you needy bastards! After all, this is a “smart” movie and if you don’t get it, you are part of the problem!”
Jennifer Jason Leigh is also there, playing a psychologist that I was told is the villain in the book. However, in the movie she seems barely conscious, blithely walking through the proceedings. She is not really an antagonist nor a protagonist, just a cast member. She seems to be aware that The Hateful Eight gave her a career boost, so she best not upset the apple cart by overacting or underacting or even acting. Again, she deserves better. I mean she was in Single White Female for crying out loud, can’t we get a reaction from her of some kind?
Oscar Isaac plays Portman’s husband and for a brief second, he shows some actual human moments, but thankfully those are quickly extinguished so he can be consistent with the other characters. He is the only survivor to emerge from the last expedition and appears to be showing the effects of the alien interference. Isaac is another good actor that has had the life sucked out of him so badly you’d think he was still recovering from being in The Last Jedi. Was the entire cast just told to pretend that all their characters think they are moving underwater the day after recovering from a coma whilst chugging cold medication? “No life, people! None! C’mon, do it slower! Stop reacting!”
There are other cast members that aren’t even given superficial characteristics to make me care about them. Perchance if there were just the barest of outward personalities, we’d have something to grasp onto. However, we are denied even this slight foothold on the mountain of interest. They are all women, but that’s about all we know. Due to one throwaway line, we know that one is a lesbian, but nothing ever comes of this point ever again. I was informed that in the book they are supposed to be all cold and their personalities are purely based on what their duties are. But the movie wants to be different. Yet while attempting to barely swing the personality pendulum the other way, Annihilation decides to stop the clock altogether and make you watch it.
Perhaps Annihilation is the unnecessary answer to the Ghostbusters reboot question where you also had a group of women investigating an unnatural force of nature. Not that Ghostbusters: Please Don’t Answer That Call was groundbreaking, but it was semi-colorful even though it is undoubtedly considered to be not “smart” like Annihilation. At the very least, that 2016 Ghostbusters attempted to give the group character traits. Annihilation goes to purposeful lengths to allow for only the shallowest of characterizations. I expect better written roles in this age of womyn or womxn or wömmәn or whatever the hell we’re supposed to start misspelling for a soon-to-be forgotten moment of current accommodation.
Maybe the concept was to have Annihilation be a statement about how women’s reactions and interactions would be superior on all fronts? Then again, I cannot imagine that this was the point because the movie falls in this regard as well. Case in point: if they were superior, they would have at least known to bring along flashlights that were worth a damn. The only character backgrounds are hastily constructed personal flaws that aren’t really explored beyond a few tossed off lines while they navigate a water system. Most of the audience probably missed even hearing any of it because they chose that moment to visit the restrooms yet again.
It isn’t like there were just a few dull and uninspired characters in this movie. They all were dull and uninspired. Even as the members of the expedition get picked off one by one, which could have led to dramatic moments, they aren’t really missed. They weren’t given enough to do in the first place. And the movie could have glossed over some of these shortcomings by picking up the pace and clipping along a bit faster. But…it…didn’t…annnnnd…mooooves…sloooow…llly…
I can forgive a great many movies for a slower pacing, even in the field of science fiction. Frankly, I find 2001: A Space Odyssey to be a bit of a slog, but I was at least treated to the amazing visuals that Stanley Kubrick and his effects team orchestrated. Even in that short-on-story movie, I kinda sorta care about Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood and their situation. I want to know about what made HAL supposedly malfunction. I’m left with questions and not a lot of answers, but by the end of 2001, I’m left mulling and pondering about what I just watched. Of course, Annihilation doesn’t do that. (I hold out hope that perhaps Annihilation, like 2001, will also get a Peter Hyams-directed sequel some 16 years later that’s a bit faster paced, involves the Soviet Union, and stars Bob Balaban to explain everything from the first movie.)
Let me address Annihilation being a supposedly “smart” science fiction movie. There wasn’t enough meat on the bones for it to be considered “smart” or “artful” or even “watchable”. Perhaps those calling it “smart” think there’s more to Annihilation than there actually was, don’t understand that there wasn’t, and walk away believing they are “smart”. Then again just like Portman in the movie, maybe they have been possibly infected/replaced when they wrestled with a burnt Silver Surfer-Body Snatcher–Last Starfighter beta unit-type thing. Eh, probably not.
So, in conclusion, we found a babysitter, my wife decidedly loathes movie adaptations of books, and a good number of my Junior Mints were needlessly sacrificed in the name of a “smart” science fiction movie. That being said, I shall now say something smart: in this age of equality and whatnot, Annihilation certainly proves that not only can you have a group of women on a scientific expedition but you can also make their exploits as dull, boring, and colorless as a group of men doing the exact same thing.