5 Reasons Why "Annihilation" Was a Swing and a Miss
It's been a long time since I've seen a movie that has made me spend days deciding whether I liked it or not. And one might want to chalk it up to the fact that it's a sci-fi film with polarizing subject matter and disturbing imagery...but I'd say it's due to some confusion this movie has about its own self and what it was trying to say. This movie suffered from an identity crisis so badly, that I was afraid it would chop off all its hair, break up with its boyfriend, become a buddhist and move to Switzerland to find itself.
As for the plot, our protagonist Lena (played by Natalie Portman) is introduced to us as a professor with a unique military background, who has been eagerly awaiting the return of her Special Forces husband, Kane (played by Oscar Isaacs) from his potentially deadly mission. He randomly arrives home with a stupefied and unresponsive disposition to himself, to her disappointment. Once it's obvious that he's ill, Lena rushes him to the hospital, only to be intercepted by government secret forces and lead to Area X where a glittering electromagnetic wave has taken over a plot of land for several years creating disturbing species and toxic growths. Dr. Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh,) a psychologist affiliated with a mission to explore the space recruits Lena to join her all-female team of scientists to finally come to an understanding of what's going on in this field.
Was it trying to be an existential discussion point? Was it trying to be a feminist flick? Was it trying to be a drama about relationships? Was it just a much needed re-do of the boring and pointless Arrival? Or was it just trying to make Star Wars fans cry by putting Queen Amidala and Poe Dameron in bed together? Whatever it was trying to do, it was a unique and visually imaginative science fiction film...filled to the brim with characters and concepts that were as dull and directionless as they come by.
There was clearly a lot of effort put into making this a unique film with fantastic imagery. So what made it feel so full of missed opportunity?
(Note: I have not read the book this movie is based off of and am only judging the story-telling based on this 2018 film)
1. IT WAS INSULTING AS A FEMINIST MOVIE
I understand that we're in the middle of the #MeToo movement and that this country is celebrating every step towards equality women take. But you cannot just paint a red F for feminism across a movie and pretend like it's doing something to further the movement. And that was the first thing that made me squirm in my theatre seat.
Within the first half hour, this movie announced that it was going to be a feminist power hour. They made sure to mention at least every five minutes that the whole mission team is comprised of women. That when an all male team was up to bat, they failed, and that this new crop of females were going to really work as a team, stick together and toast beers in a gleeful fashion.
Then the movie completely forgets all the progressive promises it made. After introducing us to two team members of color, the film allows one of the white women - Sheppard, played by Tuva Novotny - to give their exposition for them when they're ten feet away! "Hi, I'm Sheppard. Exposition-explainer-extraordinaire. That over there is Gina Rodriguez's character, Thorensen. She's a recovering alcoholic. She could tell you that herself, but she's over three yards away. Oh and Tessa Thompson's character Radek? She cuts herself to feel alive. You could ask her about it...buuuuuuut we only gave her two lines in this movie, so that might make it difficult."
The women spend the rest of the movie being messy, dishonest, ignorant and completely reliant on the competencies of Lena. They are so incompetent that they have panic attacks at the idea that they may not all make it out alive (which I thought was well understood by the fact that the last team to go on this mission perished,) not to mention the character who claims to be a paramedic cannot confirm that a man's large intestine isn't supposed to wriggle around in his body like a snake, and refuses to even look at footage of it happening a second time because she's too grossed out.
Now, I'm not one of those people who believes a world with only women would be perfect and lovely. Women are imperfect and I don't like feminist films that act like we're all cherubs. But with this movie boasting a mixed-race mostly-female cast and several Bechdel test-passing scenes, I was disappointed to see that the women in this movie rarely stuck together and were rarely were honest with each other, leading to their demise. And the film allows us to spend virtually no time on our female characters other than Lena. And once again, none of the characters of color were competent enough to hold their own on this mission. So what was the point of the alleged feminism and diversity?
I wouldn't be as irritated if this movie didn't try so hard within the first half hour to act like a feminist tale. I'll be happy when the mainstream movies stop trying to randomly jump on a movement's bandwagon. Not every film needs to be politicized, but if you're going to claim to be part of a movement, you should do something for the movement.
2. It forgot to make me care about its characters
This movie suffers from a very common cinematic issue found in the action and science fiction dramas: With the movie being focused on the mission and action, how do we set up exposition in a short period of time to make the audience care about our action/sci-fi heroes on a personal level?
This movie decided to go with a bunch of scenes of Lena and Kane rolling around in bed together snuggling and laughing. Much better in my opinion than a montage, but only getting to see small clips of their life together right before he left on the mission didn't really make me connect with them.
I don't need a cheesy montage of him giving her a piggy back ride through tall grasses while she twirls a daisy in his face. I just needed to see more footage of them as a couple through more mundane situations than them having an existential conversations or discussing their missions. When it comes to falling in love with movie characters, it's the little relatable things that make us connect with them. Watching them sit in their perfect home rolling around on silk sheets discussing how important their jobs are to the fate of the world does not make me feel like I relate.
This lack of connection to them caused me to also sense a lack of chemistry between the characters themselves, making me shrug when she ends up cheating on him with a co-worker. If I didn't really feel them being strongly connected to each other, why would it shock or appall me to see her messing around with someone else? What do I care?
3. PEOPLE'S FLAWS MEAN NOTHING TO THE STORY
I'm not sure why this movie even made an attempt at giving their characters thoughts and background stories when they didn't use those traits to further anyone's storyline.
The movie stresses over and over and over again to us that the only thing Lena cares about in her life besides her work, is Kane. Yet she's seen cheating on him with no explanation as to why she did it. The movie stresses that Ventress doesn't believe suicide exists and believes instead that we simply all self-destruct in different ways...only to randomly allow a mystical orb to take over her body at the end of the movie with little to no explanation. Radek, the quiet one who has issues with cutting, decides to willfully become a tree instead of dealing with any of the problems that plague her. And finally, hot-headed Thorensen takes it upon herself to knock out and tie up all the other women when she believes they're not telling her everything they know. Afraid for her life, things come to blows as she holds her fellow teammates accountable for their damaging lies and secrets...only for her to get eaten by a bear randomly.
This movie may as well have written the characters horror film-style, where they tell you nothing about them and then kill them off one by one. It would not have made a difference.
4. INTERESTING CONCEPTS NEVER GOT FLESHED OUT
For all I know, all concepts got fully fleshed out in the book. But this film brought up a ton of ideas that ended up going nowhere.
From Dr. Ventress randomly sacrificing herself after claiming she doesn't believe in suicide, to the idea that Radek could will herself to become a tree out of nowhere when they don't understand the technology of what they're up against, to Kane committing suicide when he seems to have a lot to live for at home, to the directionless concept Lena and Kane brought up that when you die, your cells divide, transforming you into something new rather than killing something old.
I guess you could infer a lot from the characters' actions following these discussions. Like maybe Ventress changed her mind, maybe Lena and Kane accepted their cells dividing to become something new, and maybe the will to become a tree was all that was needed to turn a person into one. But those are all vague assumptions we as the audience are forced to make due to what in my opinion is directionless and lazy storytelling. Again, maybe this was all clear in the book, but I really shouldn't have to read a book to understand the basic concepts of a movie. If you're going to adapt a book into a movie - while you won't be able to get every detail into it - you have to adapt the main concepts thoroughly. A film must stand on its own to a certain extent.
5. IF IT WEREN'T FOR THE FINAL HALF HOUR, I WOULD FORGET THIS FILM IMMEDIATELY
One thing I will give this movie is that the last half hour was very unique and cinematically intriguing. The last half hour is honestly unlike any film I've seen before. It successfully takes you to whole other dimension, where you're seeing cells dividing before your eyes. The imagery and music really set it apart from the rest of the movie and create a whole new tone that feels out of this world. Part of what makes it work is the basic one-note nature of the world the film created for the characters, juxtaposed with the surrealness of this climactic scene. It does a good job of lingering on the odd imagery and letting you get taken away by it.
But then of course, after all that, we go back to Basic-ville where Lena is being interrogated about her time during the mission and why all of her teammates died except her. She then stares at a glass of water for a long time and embraces what she now knows is a clone and of her dead husband, realizing life will never be the same.
And the very last scene of this movie sobers me up from the excitement of the climax, reminding me why I will probably forget this movie one day, even with all its unique imagery and fearlessness to show gore: Because this movie didn't flesh out any of its concepts. It brought out traits in characters that never mattered, pretended to have a feminist theme, forgot to make me truly care about its characters and took me out of the fantasy it created just to showcase stereotypical sci-fi movie scenery and dialogue.
The sad part is that this movie had potential. It's clear that the author of the book had a strong idea and that the director wanted to do something different. But I blame the red tape of Hollywood for why this was a mess. Big Hollywood studios take your unique Kubrick-like or Lynch-like ideas and force upon you generic tropes, boring dialogue and corny framework. I would have preferred to see this story told as an indie film with a bit more freedom in production. But then maybe we would never have heard about it.