March 1, 2018

annihilation-plant-evolution-elementsWell trodden territory in some ways, and yet also utterly unique in it’s derivations for a (US, at least) theatrical release, Alex Garland’s Annihilation is the kind of messy, intriguing, and at times utterly enthralling science fiction that drives me to consider it beyond the walls of the multiplex even as I’m sure much of it doesn’t hold up.  A (very loose, from what I’ve been told) adaptation of the first of the Southern Reach trilogy of novels by Jeff VanderMeer, the film sees Natalie Portman as an ex-army biologist thrust into a top secret base in Florida after her presumed dead special forces husband returns home after a year absence before promptly spewing blood all over the back of an ambulance.  The base is observing a phenomenon called “The Shimmer”, based on the fact that it, well, shimmers the color spectrum.  She volunteers to join a team that’s potentially on a suicide mission to venture into The Shimmer to better understand it’s peculiar affect on everything around it, especially as the “everything around it” is expanding rapidly.  Things go Stalker pretty quickly, with ample time for brief bouts of the sci-fi horror Garland has ventured in previously in his screenplays for Sunshine and 28 Days Later

Tarkovsky is the go-to reference here, and it owes no small debt to the unsettling atmosphere of The Zone in Stalker, in that both demarcated areas are essentially mind-warping “nothing-is-as-it-seems” simulacra where time is as fractured as the light.  Overgrown with mutating fauna, one of the finest achievements of Annihilation is the design and the cinematography of the overgrown alien Florida swamp, which features colorful flowers, human shaped trees, and a persistent (and, for once in cinema, functional) series of lens flares.  The dark, dimly lit scenes in the “real world” are an early tell that Garland is intent on doing something interesting with The Shimmer, including an Oz-like contrast to the grim staidness of the characters’ previous lives to the sense of the unknown that lurks excitingly through every inch of the alien space.  Garland is, like many before him, using the otherworldly landscape as an allegory for the interior lives of its broken characters.  In one of many clunky facets grafted onto the story, each character is essentially self destructing because of some psychological or physical trauma in their past lives.  This doesn’t always work, especially in the case of Portman’s backstory, in which the early going memories of romantic married bliss are replaced with reveals of a deep unhappiness acting out.  A meteor crashing to earth and fundamentally changing the cellular environment can only be a therapeutic tool for an attractive cast, after all. 

Thankfully, it doesn’t quite work out that way.  For one, aside from Tessa Thompson’s wrist cutter, I can’t say that anyone gains any kind of closure or insight or transcendence from their experience (well, maybe the latter for a few).  If Garland’s take is to explore the fundamental flaw in people is as the same in cells (they decay and self destruct), then I’d wager he follows through on the thesis rather than attempting to find something about self discovery.  It’s not necessarily a bleak picture in that regard, but it’s not terribly affirming.  It’s really about understanding, or not, and considering the concept.  The film the kept springing to mind was De Palma’s Mission to Mars, which was more or less his take on 2001, in which he wrenches a bit of traditional terror out of the hazards of space travel before stepping into another dimension, but that does Garland a disservice (I know that film has it’s ardent defenders, and maybe one day I’ll be on of them, but not this day).  It’s pretty out-there climax more logically follows what came before than any “Beyond the Infinite” sequence, character wise, and perhaps that’s to it’s detriment given the relatively shambolic nature of the characters themselves, but he’s going for something contained within humanity, and points for sticking to it. 

Whatever the merits of its philosophy and art-house aspirations, and there’s a good argument to be made that it’s an effective confrontation of existential depression, the design elements and certain sequences will remain with me for a long time.  One can quibble with the need to insert the expected horror aspects, but the psychological breakdown of one of the characters followed quickly by the emergence of a mutated bear-beast with the scream of its latest victim permanently etched into its howls is hell of a one-two, and the latter aspect will stay with me for a long damn time. 


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