We’re in a weird place right now both personally and industry-wise. The COVID-19 has upended almost every system by revealing flaws and cracks we either knew existed or had stubbornly ignored. While many of us face quarantine, it has become a time of reflection and in the case of film critics a time to get creative while Hollywood decides how to proceed.
So here at the Fandomentals we present Second Chance Sundays and Whatever Wednesdays. On Second Chance Sundays I will take a movie previously reviewed and take another crack at it. I’ll be looking at movies I loved, hated, or just felt meh about. I think Whatever Wednesdays speak for themselves. This only temporary until everything settles down somewhat.
Annihilation is a hypnotic dreamlike science fiction that appears more enigmatic than it is. My original review of Alex Garland’s film made it seem inscrutable and inaccessible. In truth, its message is quite clear and the film shoots straight with us in a way that leaves us uneasy.
I was so busy focusing on the science fiction aspect of the film I forgot the cardinal rule of film: Movies are not about what they are about; they are how they are about what they are about.
Annihilation is about a myriad of other things as well but at its heart, it’s about processing the pain, sorrow, and change that comes with loss. That it has aliens, plant people, giant mutated alligators, and a potent cocktail of unsettling and haunting imagery is merely Garland’s way of making sure we get the message.
My opinion on Annihilation hasn’t changed; rather my perception of it has. I no longer view it as this grand mysterious assemblage of imagery and sound. I now view it as a simple forthright mediation on the psychological trauma of pain and loss.
The aliens, the Shimmer, even the clones have no real bearing on what the film is trying to do. They are merely the science-fiction trappings. Annihilation is about trauma and the varying forms it can take. We know this because every character is dealing with the lingering pain of a trauma of some sort or another. Trauma changes us in subtle ways and in massive impossible to miss ways.
It can ground us to a nub, unwilling, or too exhausted to fight for happiness or any kind of life. Pain can poison us and makes us think we are alone when we are surrounded by friends. It can warp the very core of our being and change us in ways that while we appear to be the same, yet, we are no longer the same person. We are merely a clone of our past self.
Re-watching Annihilation I found myself stunned by how blunt the film actually is. Thematically rich and far from simplistic it is nonetheless clear in what it is about. I keep mentioning trauma and loss because those are the overriding themes that exist in Garland’s framework so obviously.
The characters represent the different ways we deal with trauma as well as stand for examples of the varying kinds of pain from the traumas we can endure, be it a loss, addiction, the loss of connection, or facing one’s own mortality. The aliens and the Shimmer which seems to be spreading over the planet are the trappings of the story. A vehicle that Garland, as both writer and director, uses to explore the aforementioned themes.
Natalie Portman’s Lena is a study of a woman undergoing grief while confronting her own mortality and the loss of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). The Kane who greets her at the beginning of the film is not her husband. He has changed somehow and Lena can no longer seem to connect with him. She feels as if he is a stranger.
By the end, after experiencing the Shimmer and facing her own self, head-on, she emerges differently as well. Whether or not, Kane or Lena at the end are clones is beside the point. Ambiguity is part of Epic theater, a form of storytelling that wishes you to be awake and notice the artifices of the story. In other words, Garland has gone through a lot of trouble making sure his metaphors stick and he doesn’t want to cloud the issue with a plot that can be easily wrapped in a bow.
Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy create a dreamlike tapestry for which to bring his metaphors to life. They give us a rich tapestry of visuals. They range from haunting serenity to metaphoric surrealism. Such as when Portman’s Lena dances with an amorphous blob as it metamorphoses itself into a clone of Lena while an electronica rhythm undulates under the scene.
The way Josie (Tessa Thompson) removes her jacket, Hardy’s camera shows her baring her scars-no longer ashamed. Josie gives in to the Shimmer. She chooses not to fight but instead gives in and surrender to a peace that has eluded her for too long. Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the addict, roars at the void that is the Shimmer. She refuses to stand idly by and dares it to swallow her up-which it does. Then there is Cassie (Tuva Novotny) who is dragged screaming into the night, her choice ripped from her hands because she refused to acknowledge the pain was even there.
These are just a handful of examples. The moments seem strange but once we realize they are not meant to be literal they make so much more sense. Hardy’s framing should have been a clue as it never hides; opting instead to allow us to see the whole of the thing as it happens. The image is the point-not the plot point.
Annihilation is disturbing in its nightmarish imagery while also weaving a strange spell of ease and oneness. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s music helps as the score, combined with a truly masterful sound design, highlights the hallucinatory aspects while also enhancing the tension and mood of the film.
All of this culminates in the aforementioned scene of Lena dancing with herself. It is hypnotic as it is revelatory as Lena attempts to come to terms with herself, her sorrow, and her pain as she processes it all via interpretative dance. I am only slightly joking, had this been an 80’s film I would half expect Vixen’s “Living on the Edge of a Broken Heart” to be blasting over the soundtrack. But Salisbury and Barrow’s score waltzes to its own deeply idiosyncratic rhythm as Lena’s body ebbs and flows as she grapples with her own psyche.
It is a perfectly calibrated performance by Portman. Pain has a way of transforming us in ways we are unaware of. It can be physical or psychological, oftentimes it is both. Portman’s ability to express all of this merely by how she holds herself, like a coil that is too tight but at the same time has lost its elasticity, is an effect all its own.
I haven’t mentioned the meteor that crashed on earth causing the mysterious shimmer to begin to spread. Nor, have I mentioned the terrifying bear which growls the voices of the dead as he stalks around in the dark, the previous mission inside the Shimmer, or even the cliffhanger ending. There is much I have not mentioned because, not to keep repeating myself, the story isn’t the point.
Instead, I find myself looking within. If I were to meet my wife 10 years ago, as I am now, would she view me as Lena views Kane? I would look the same, sound the same, but I am not the same person, at least not the person she knew then. At the beginning of the film, Lena recognizes Kane but cannot reconcile the new Kane with the one she knows. At the end after Lena as left the Shimmer she and Kane reunite both are different but both are who they say they are.
The clones are metaphors for how we grow and change, how events and life can change us fundamentally to our core. But how we react to the change, how we deal with the pain is part of who we are. Do we surrender to it, fight it, live with it, or ignore it? Annihilation shows us the many different ways we choose to cope with pain. Amidst all the imagery and mutated creatures, the film is filled with mercy. It never judges these women for their decisions and in fact, makes it to where we understand why they react the way they do.
I suppose you could read other aspects into Annihilation which is part of its greatness. Much like last week’s The Ox-Bow Incident you can read any number of themes into the movie and still make it work. Annihilation has a certain bug nuttiness about it that thrills me every time I watch it.
The reason you can do that though is that the central theme is lucid and concise. It allows for satellite interpretations but none of them have anything to do with an alien invasion. Garland had the audacity to stuff the screen with a haunting panorama of visuals and ideas to a degree that caring about such trivial things as the point of the alien invasion and the motive of the clones is almost laughable.
Garland gave us a science fiction movie less concerned with science or fiction, and more fascinated by our very humanity and need for connection as well as our weakness and susceptibility to our own psyche. He does all of this without ever being opaque or pretentious. It’s just that we sometimes miss the obvious; as I did. In other words, Annihilation is not about what it is about.
Next Week: Ingrid Goes West