Since I’ve been starting to try to review everything I watch/read/play, I’ve noticed myself thinking of what I’ll write as the story progresses. This movie was no different for that new habit, but as the film concluded I suddenly found myself at a loss for words. How do I write about this movie, or any movie like this? I don’t mean simply a movie that is rather divisive such as Avatar, Crash, Nymphomaniac, Man of Steel or the recent Mother! but more along the lines of a film that you simply cannot fully appreciate upon first contact: Under the Skin, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arrival, The Fountain, et cetera. I’d happily put Annihilation in that list as well.
Of course, one then must ask the question “Is the film itself ambiguous, or indeterminate?” to which I would most certainly lean towards the former but only through careful deliberation. Annihilation does provide you with all the answers you need, but deciding which questions fit those answers I think is what makes thinking about this movie such a sport. Only once you settle on your idea of “Why?” I think you can participate in discussion of it; this is most certainly a film that you’re going to want to see for yourself instead of read about. Because of that, compounded with the fact that writing a “review” of this film whilst dancing around details would be nothing more than lazy summary, I’m not going to make intense efforts to avoid spoilers. If you have any interest in watching this movie, do it before reading about it.
So, let’s discuss.
I fully believe that this movie is more of a Rorschach test than most films these days have the balls to be. You see in it what you want to; the what’s, why’s, and how’s are written in equal part by the screenwriter as attentive audience members, thus creates inherent subjectivity. For me, there were quite a few things I thought throughout my viewing but the idea that I kept coming back to was that although it looked as though the asteroid brought something that spelled certain doom for all of humanity, it started to seem as though this antagonistic force was actually the hero of the story. Since that sounds strange, let me explain.
We’ve all seen Infinity War, and the amazing part of that movie is that if you watch it from Thanos’ point of view, it’s one hell of a heroic tale of one man saving the universe against certain demise. The same theory can be applied here: this asteroid hit Earth, brought some sort of alien life, and started to take over the planet… but is this actually such a bad thing? The life that we saw within the Shimmer resembled life we see every day through the observation of plants and animals, it was just different than what we’re used to. In fact, it seemed as though life was doing better in the area of the planet devoid of humanity. Plants were mutating every few inches of growth, animals were getting bigger and stronger, and the environment itself seemed completely free of toxins– even able to turn potentially dangerous creatures (humans) into flowering planets. The only things it seemed to get rid of, not just change, were humans.
While, literally, this movie can be described as “cosmic horror,” I think that is misleading. Horror implies that bad things happen and while subjective bad things do indeed happen, the entire “horror” label dismisses the notion that what’s going on in the movie is actually objectively beneficial.
Maybe we are the bad guys… #ThanosWasRight
I wouldn’t call the entire film an obvious work of unique genius, though, because a lot of what it does felt quite run-of-the-mill. If you just watch the movie without thinking about it, you’ll probably feel like it’s similar to most post-apocalyptic stories; if you start this movie at around the 25-minute mark, I’m sure that’s exactly what you’d think it is. You have a group of scientists touring a human-less world that looks like it’s been deserted for decades. Plants have grown everywhere, the animal kingdom is the primary hierarchy, and nobody knows where the other people have gone. We even discover that everybody else has died somehow, much akin to how a band of misfits would have died in a zombie flick. So, if you watched I Am Legend and Avatar before going to bed, your dream would probably look quite a bit like Annihilation.
That being said, it’s the dream element that offers what’s truly unique about this film: the emotional journey it takes you on. From the cinematography and visual effects to sound design and score, the entire movie is sensorily ecstatic and is worth experiencing on that basis alone. But, when you combine the story and cast into this fantastical work of art, you get something that instantly makes you wonder what it all means, and why. I experienced no such bewilderment upon finishing I Am Legend or Avatar, but I can’t escape it after Annihilation.
Most of the thoughts racing through my head currently are trying to explain how and why everybody died in the film (or at least, everybody that did die). It seemed as though the deaths (all but one) were reflective of who was dying at that moment. The psychiatrist died in a strange cerebral detonation of sorts, resulting in her becoming (or at least, being the vehicle for the creation of) some sort of transforming alien being that mirrors whoever it latches itself onto. The previously suicidal scientist died peacefully, with her DNA being transformed into flowering roots which ties back to an alluded to theory: that she’s not suicidal but rather self-destructive, and at peace with it. The paranoid fire-starter was mauled by a bear, I don’t think there’s much more room for analysis there. And our main character went in with the specific goal of being able to help her husband, and came out successful…more or less. The only character that I’m having trouble figuring out is the first one to die, also mauled by a bear but with remnants of her existing within the very same bear.
The only explanation I can think of here (just now, so I’m not sure how defensible it is), is that her death was more about showcasing what animal life is like. We get a teaser of it with the alligator near the beginning of Act II, in which we see that the alligator is evolving to be more like a shark in the structure of its jaw and teeth. When Scientist A dies by the bear, we see that the bear later roars with the scientist’s voice. “Help me!” we hear every time the bear open it’s mouth as though it has made a direct copy of her vocal fingerprint. We learn that even the animals, not just the plants, evolve at nearly infinitely fast rates and can copy humanity’s existence as though it was nothing at all. Animals can learn to talk like us (shown by the bear) and plants can mirror hox genes (shown by the death of Tessa Thompson’s character). Other than that, I have not a clue.
But, what do I know? I just watched this movie for the first time tonight and I’m ridiculously tired. This all might sound ridiculous upon revisiting.
I’d like to say that I’m going to just sleep on it and come up with more things to say tomorrow but a) the point of this movie is that it’s not that easy to figure it out and b) I can always just edit this review at any time. So, I’m going to end it here for now and call it a night. Maybe I’ll dream of I Am Legend and Avatar.
As always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon.