Alex Garland’s newest film improves upon the novel in most ways, but falls a tad short in that it holds the audience’s hand too much.
“Nightmarish,” says Benedict Wong’s character, Lomax, in “Annihilation.”
“Not always,” responds Natalie Portman’s character, Lena. “Sometimes it was beautiful.”
“Annihilation,” Alex Garland’s recent two-hour film adaptation of the novel of the same name, by Jeff VanderMeer, is an enigma. The only thing I was really sure of when coming out of the theater was that I knew why I’d heard nothing good about this film.
Everyone with whom I’ve spoken about it in person have all said the same thing: “Oh, I’ve heard awful things about that movie.” No one I know has actually seen the film. Despite its universally positive reception, my small social bubble is somewhat bristled to the film based on hearsay.
This isn’t a unique feature of “Annihilation.” Every film has a reputation spread by word of mouth. This film, however, demands some attention and respect from its audience that I feel is not willingly given from everyone. It lies enshrouded beneath many layers of subtleties and easy-to-miss visual cues, but I imagine that even the most attentive filmgoers will be scratching their heads on the walk back to their car.
This isn’t bad. I enjoyed this film and its unwillingness to completely let us in on its secret.
As we follow Lena and her crew into the film’s twisted setting, we break from the desaturated, monotonous colors that fill the supposed real world in which we begin. As the pacing picks up and the characters all have their moments of introduction, we step alongside them into a world both mysterious and beautiful.
Colors fill the screen, the palette taking on a shade from each corner of the rainbow. Indeed, each shot has something rainbow-tinted about it. This is a central theme of “Annihilation” — its overall inclusion and cohesiveness, and not just of colors.
The film falls unfortunately flat in what should be accompanying these gorgeous visuals. That is, a compelling collection of audio, both musical and ambient. I can never absolutely place myself with the characters because it sees as if at all times they travel silently through a silent land. This doesn’t seem to be the intended scenario, as they all respond and act as if they are in a lush, living environment, ripe with the racket of life. The climax, as well as a few other particularly grueling moments, take on a new layer of sound, however, giving the illusion that all the film’s ambience was saved for these scenes.
Also disappointing is the film’s timidity. I commented earlier on its being an enigma, but too much of the plot is set in stone. The opening scene takes place chronologically last — or near-last — and this is no big spoiler, because the events of the film are immediately laid out before us, as are the fates of the supporting cast who, granted, we do not yet know. Each time the group of protagonists makes some shocking discovery or comes close to unleashing some chaotic feelings of anxiety, the audience is ripped back to this scene, or to a flashback. We are unable to revel in the feelings of the characters because we are constantly displaced, brought into the familiar, out of their unfamiliar. This is the crucial character-audience bond that the film lacks.
This is not to say the film has bad characters. Of the film critics whose opinions I’ve happened to overhear or skim through, a common complaint is a lack of characters. I would say that all the characters (save for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress, who is consistently and unendingly grating throughout the film’s duration) are fairly well put together in just the few short sentences of backstory we’re given about each of them. We learn a key component of their past, and these things come back up. Their arcs are inverted, with them not changing as people so much as reverting to who they used to be.
Lena is a harder nut to crack. As she is the main character, her arc is most important to the film. In the end we are left uncertain about her and her change. We know she learns something, but we are unsure as to what. This adds to the film’s shrouded nature and seems to be a hit-or-miss quality. I think it tends to the “hit” side, but there are plenty that disagree with me.
I don’t like clarity in stories. I like being left in the dark, though not completely. I want a candle, or a swinging light bulb somewhere in the distance. I want to know that there is something else and that I am expected to get there on my own. “Annihilation,” for the most part, does this. Perhaps on my path they have placed a few more unnecessary lights, but they do far better than any other film I’ve seen this year.
I’d like to end this review by discussing something everyone hates to hear about: the book, how I’ve read it and how it relates to the movie. I’ll cut to the chase: I did not like the book. The characters were cardboard, the emotions hard to grasp, the point-of-view flat, constantly ranging from dull to too much and even the prose, while delightfully ungrounded, lacked an important peppering of structure. The film either improves upon or sidesteps, by its nature, these issues.
One thing the novel has over its big screen counterpart, however, is its absolute disconnection from anything the reader could hope to understand. To borrow my earlier metaphor, I venture to suggest that the film leaves the reader with no distant light source, only a dark and beckoning nothing with the faintest hint of which direction in which to walk. The film has too much backstory, too much origin, at times even too much motivation.
It’s a good film, a strong start for 2018, but its wannabe mystery is at times trumped by its tendency to over-explain or to underline for the benefit of the audience. Its biggest strength is just barely underutilized, but it shows.
Alex Garland weaves a compelling story that leaves us wanting, but he does a little too much for us at times. I say let us drown, or at the most throw some rope a mile away. We’ll make it if we really want to.