FULL BLEED: EMBRACE THE AWFUL THING
I'll avoid talking about what's really important and instead talk about movies and other things. The really important stuff is too raw to touch on directly. Maybe I'll get back to it. Maybe it'll be suffused throughout all this.
Recently caught ANNIHILATION on Amazon Prime. And as a quick aside before I dig into the film, I find Amazon Prime's programming way more compelling than Netflix at this point (I mean back catalog, both companies original offerings really don't blow me away -- I think this comes down to my problems with the expectations of form surrounding "prestige TV" as much as anything.) In terms of old movies, Amazon crushes Netflix. It's laughable how little competition there is. Amazon is basically what cable TV used to be, mixed in with a bunch of the UHF era as much as VHS. I've found a lot of stuff I'd never have watched (granted, a lot of it is bad on several levels, but at least it's watchably bad.) So yeah, choosing between the two, I'd go Amazon if I had to. There's a lot of joyfully watchable garbage there.
ANNIHILATION is, however, not joyfully watchable garbage. Mostly because it's not joyful and it's not garbage. It's a very well-made movie. I joked on Twitter that "ANNIHILATION is just THE THING on quaaludes, right?" I said that about halfway through and I don't think I was wrong. Sure, I was glib, but I'm allowed to from time to time, right? So as I said, well-made, well-designed, well-acted. The script had issues, some in fundamental basis, much in just how it hadled humans talking and interacting.
Spoilers abound from here. Punch out if you haven't watched it, and it's certainly worth watching as part of your cable subscription. I'll be working on the assumption that you've seen the movie and am not wild about breaking down the plot from scratch.
ANNIHILATION is a weird beast. And before I get to the discussion of shortcomings, et al, I'm glad that Alex Garland and company are out there making weird beasts. I'd prefer that to the pre-programmed on rails all-for-the-story-and-no-waste sorts of content we get these days. I'd rather get an engaging film that provokes, even if it utterly falls short within its own boundaries. At least it's trying something, goddammit.
As for falling short, that's every character who isn't Natalie Portman in this movie. Once we get out of South Point, there's not a bit of intra-character dialogue that really works, at least in engagement with other characters. So much so that I have to think that this is by design. And while that's a choice, it is perhaps not a satisfying one. As such, I'd rather have been Portman's character forging out on her own, and when we get to that is the genuine heart of the film, so again, perhaps by design. That said, it means interactions before that are frustrating, maddening even. (Spoiler for the book - my understanding is that the other team members are operating under hypnotic suggestion, but this is not a thread taken up in the film -- It would, however, explain some things.)
This, sadly, goes double for the affair with David Gayasi's character in the film, which is handled in a perfunctory and dismissive manner. Perhaps there was an expanded bit to this (as the film already ran a touch long) but as presented, just, ugh. It also reminds you that there were better actors who could have had expanded roles and instead they're pushed off to the sides and left to flounder with scraps of motivation/lines. Every character who isn't Portman doesn't really matter. This even extends to her husband, the reason she's even in Area X in the first place.
Which of course makes the whole trip...crazy. But no crazier than Kane (the husband) reappearing after a year on a mysterious mission only to explode into illness and everything else that this leads to. Disconnectedness and unreality play heavy on things *before* they're supposed to get really crazy behind the walls of the Shimmer. The non-linearity of the plot really doesn't help in this. I mean, I understand what they were going for, at least I think I do, but the constant flipping back and forth (some in thought, some in the recorded traces of the last expedition) just intensifies confusion without really offering illumination, at least until we get character reveals, etc. Sigh. Certainly not how I want to approach things in my own work. But ANNIHILATION wasn't my story to tell, right?
Now, this is not to say that the film is not effective as a science-fiction/horror outing. It certainly is. Though the action sequences almost feel like a grudging admission of "this is just how it's done" and are incongruous between the longer moments of growing dread or wonder (though there's precious little of that, as it's subsumed by fear of becoming something else.) There's a great bit with the bear, even if it's...convenient for the story as it's turned.
Ultimately, what I ended up pulling from the film, the only thing that really makes sense to me, is that trauma, human trauma, is what will keep us from being assimilated into this kind of entity, should it appear. Everyone who goes into Area X is broken, at least the team we're watching in real-time through the action of the film. All these women are broken in their own ways. Some of these breaks being significant enough that it prevents the characters from reaching the truth at the center of Area X. We can argue as to whether or not they're digested into the whole that is the Thing or not. Only Portman's character makes it relatively intact, trauma and all, to the primal cave.
Portman's interaction with the unnamed Thing is certainly the centerpiece of the film, and where it's most effective. Largely wordless, we're left to action on the screen and character reaction to tell us what's going on (and honestly, just blurting things out would have destroyed any possibility of nuance or reader formulation, so thank goodness it was left as it was.) So the Thing tries to assimilate human trauma and instead leaves itself vulnerable to...well...everything. She feeds it the grenade left there by her dead husband and the doppleganger that the Thing has created, thus closing the loop of the plot and the whole works burns down.
Alien fails to assimilate trauma, or when it does, is destroyed. Or you can argue something as simple as human mortality did the job.
Granted, these reads only work if you don't watch the last two minutes of film where it turns out that both the doctor who's made it through all this and the husband-thing are SURPRISE alien clones with bodies and memories and glowy eyes and I honestly wanted to drop-kick the television when I got to that. It was not an ending I cared for at all, but it was the only way out of the corner that things had been painted into.
So, it didn't stick the landing. That's too bad. It was an intriguing and weird journey along the way, even if the human moments didn't really happen for me. Oh, one thing that I was hoping for that they suggested but then just as soon shied away from, was the concept of refraction. Inside the Shimmer, radio waves and communications signals all get refracted into uselessness. So, it was suggested, did DNA. Which accounted for the transformations taking place amongst all the living creatures of Area X.
I was just waiting for the suggestion that the thing was refracting time, unable to bear a linear timeline like you or I are chained to. That could have brough the husband back and allowed for all manner of strangeness, but we just didn't get that. Pity. I mean, that was right there. So close.
As much as I thought ANNIHILATION missed, not just the ending, but trying to hang its coat on a hook of ambiguity and "I don't know", I didn't find it a bad movie. Momentarily infuriating, but no less so than, quite frankly, most of the "serious" SF movies to come down the pike recently. (Looking right at you, THE ARRIVAL.) I dunno, maybe embracing some level of trashiness just works better. Which isn't to say that SF can't do serious work, of course it can. Just that sometimes a little playfulness will get you further than po-faced seriousness. Maybe it just felt a little monotone to me. At any rate, I'm interested in reading the book, even if there's some things that throw red flags for me, namely the aforementioned use of hypnosis as character non/driver. I've thought about it more than many other films after watching, so that's a success at any rate.
As for the rest of what's eating me. Well, it's just like throwing rocks into a pool and watching the initial splash and then it's like it never was. Like you never even threw the rock in the first place. And it takes half a year to make the rock, dig? I mean, that's a raw truth, painful to work with.
I'll be back later this week with some links to dig. Stay safe out there.