Annihilation, in all its imperfection: the movie I never realized I was waiting for

I’m just going to launch right into it. Some haphazard thoughts about the film (rampant spoilers ahead):

Casting

First off, can I just say how amazing to see an expedition team entirely composed of women (scientists)? And on the whole I was really pleased with overall casting despite criticism about whitewashing—Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lena and Dr. Ventress respectively (both whose performances I really loved).

The movie is based on the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, and in that book there is little in the way of character physical descriptions, though in the later books the biologist (Lena in the film) is revealed have an Asian background, and the psychologist (film Ventress) is of Native American heritage. As such, the casting of Portman and Leigh could be read as default white-as-lead casting (according to the filmmaker, he only read the first book and intended the film to be a standalone), but really, politicking aside, can we just take a minute to appreciate (again) the all-woman expedition team, of which two are women of color—Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez (both also super). And beyond that I feel like it’s important to point out other characters that could so easily have been cast as “default white dude”—Lena’s biosuited interrogator “Lomax”, Lena’s husband Kane, the guy Lena was having an affair with, and look at the faces in the classroom during Lena’s lecture at the beginning of the film.

Honestly, can we see more casting like this?

Atmosphere

I feel like the film has an uneasy, melancholic quietness to it, an almost sleepy, dreamy quality with a thick undercurrent of dread. Uncanny valley. The opening scene with the comet hitting the lighthouse seems to steal in silently without explosion. And the final scenes of the lighthouse, the destruction there is captured instead with music rather than the usual percussive audio assault. It leads to a sort of inward-facing experience rather than an outward one.

Being too cerebral (ie. pretentious) was one of the film’s criticisms. Again, I disagree. But I recently read a study suggesting personality is an indicator of music preference, such as extroversion being linked with preference for the “unpretentious”. I feel like maybe a certain personality type might not “get” this film. And that’s fine.

Inside the Shimmer, everything has a sort of rainbow quality. The Shimmer itself is later described as a prism, refracting everything, but the rainbow effect makes me think of soap bubbles, oil slicks, bacteria films. The mysterious biological/genetic distortion is further underscored by lush plant growth, flowers (“it looks like someone is having a wedding”), and the multicolored lichen/mold overgrowth. Gorgeous, and deeply unsettling. A beautiful cancer. I feel like this is an approach I haven’t seen in sci fi, where thematic color preference is usually fairly monochromatic, metallic, cold blues, alien greens.

The use of soundtrack, namely the acoustic guitar and the vocal track (“Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash) at various intervals, usually in conjunction with flashback or with the disquieting nature imagery. Mainstream sci fi cinema has trained us to expect lots of brass, timpani hits, ominous strings, some deep bass rumbles. Standard soundtrack fare. Instead, Annihilation is in turns folky, intimate, ethereal, and unsettled. A sense of fragility and of humanness. And in the final act of the film things build in a more metallic synth vibe, overtones, scattered cluster chords, distortion. My disused music analysis vocabulary fails me now. You’re not exactly sure if what you’re hearing is music or entity or some evocative combination of both.

I feel like I should add that synesthetically it is both effective and deeply affecting, possesses the same shimmering polychromatic quality of the landscape.

Characters

Some complaint about the characters. Feel like this is perhaps a movie for introverts with introverts as main characters, except obligatory “hot head” Paramedic (and maybe that’s why I find her the most jarring in the ensemble).

Portman was criticized for being “unlikeable”, but I read this more as reserved and self-destructive. And in the book you get the idea of her as a true introvert (and of her husband as true extrovert and thus the compatibility struggle).

Glad Garland didn’t make too many concessions to make the Biologist more likeable. However I feel like some of the flashbacks were less than necessary and more of an attempt to “humanize” her. I’ve seen these flashbacks criticized as distracting, and maybe that’s where the tension arises. I guess I didn’t feel this interrupted the flow of the shimmer story so much because I was already watching the film in interrupted segments while B was napping, and these segments didn’t break naturally.

Monsters

Annihilation’s “monsters”, while inventive and disturbing (hello, Screambear), ultimately felt to me like concessions to wider audience appeal. If the film is indeed “too cerebral”, too introverted, then the monsters are an extroverted attempt to play to an audience that has come to expect sci fi monsters in a sci fi movie. After all, there’s a bit of a Predator vibe with the expedition team in all that lush green. And we’ve come to expect that members of said expedition would be stalked and menaced and slowly picked off by horrors, so the obligatory jump scares of the alligator/shark and the bear attack are par for the course.

I also feel like Anya’s coming unhinged at the shimmer-house and (somehow) managing to tie up the other expedition members is another too-familiar danger-trope. A monster in its own way, the “hot-head”, tipped over into the violent irrational, turning on her own team, forcing the internal to play out externally, which is what the camera wants, and what audiences expect. And ultimately the hot-head situation is only deescalated by the arrival of a more terrifying monster, the brilliant Screambear.

I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy these aspects of the film, rather they felt a bit at odds with the atmosphere and bit more removed from the source material—feelings confirmed after having read the book and finding a different kind of “alien” vs doomed expedition dynamic.

But it is what it is, and you can still enjoy the film for its deviations. I mean, Screambear is pure nightmare fuel, and nicely executed: a bear (already scary) with what appear to be bone growths on its face and head, effecting the appearance of a skull, sunken eyes, and prominent fangs, but most importantly a “refracted” voice which contains the dying screams of the Botanist slain in an earlier scene. The tension of the scene with the bound expedition members, the taut silence of only breath and ghostly remnants of a dead woman’s voice issuing from the maw of a transformed bear—this was decent, even if manufactured.

The Glass of Water

There’s a thing, scenes bookending the film, about a glass of water that took me more than one viewing.

The first scene is with the newly returned but “different” Kane, his hand and later Lena’s hand on his refracted through the glass of water. He eventually drinks, a spot of blood blossoms, “I don’t feel very well,” confirming that something is very wrong. On a second viewing, note the prismatic rainbow (aka Shimmer calling card) also in the glass.

The scene toward the end, Lena during her debriefing, drinks from a similar glass of water, and when she sets down the glass, there’s a film of water that retreats, forming an odd round shape, perhaps like a dividing cell, perhaps not. The main thing is how the scene sort of mirrors the scene with her husband earlier in the film, but there’s no blood, seeming to suggest that if Lena is changed by her experience in the shimmer, it’s not to the extent that Kane was. If he is more “other” than human, then Lena is still more human than other.

And this frames the following scene when Lena revisits the seemingly recovered Kane—

“You’re not Kane, are you.” / “I don’t think so.”

And then, “Are you Lena?” / *silence*.

So he’s not Kane. But she’s not-*not* Lena, but she is undeniably changed.

It calls up real-Kane’s video monologue at the lighthouse, “I thought I was Kane … Am I you? Are you me?” He’s at that point no longer just himself but an amalgamation of characters, everything refracted. Some argue that’s why he’s got a weird accent too.

“I don’t know”

Lena’s debriefing vs Kane’s kitchen table conversation: some have suggested that the similarities, the I don’t know’s to questions, indicate that the Lena who returned is a double like Kane at the beginning of the film, but I disagree.

I think instead her I don’t know’s come from a place of having brushed with something truly Other, of becoming in part something Other, as opposed to a place of emptiness or incomplete copy like Kane.

The Tattoo

I missed the tattoo thing on first viewing. Kind of absently thinking, oh I must not have noticed the tattoo in earlier scenes. There’s debate about who had it first, who originated the tattoo, why it appears on different characters, specifically the army guy in the pool, and on Lena and Anya. Always on the forearm.

Lena clearly has the tattoo on her forearm during her debriefing, but on closer viewing she doesn’t have the tattoo prior to her involvement with the expedition. Lena comments on a bruise, “probably got it from that gator”, which I completely forgot about until second viewing. A later scene when she’s taking blood from the same arm, the bruise seems to be forming the figure eight of the ouroborus.

The tattoo can be clearly seen on the forearm of the corpse of the guy “exploded” in the pool at the military outpost, and Anya definitely has the tattoo on her forearm by the morning following the bear attack. And much later, by the time Lena has her big showdown at the lighthouse, the tattoo is clearly visible on the alien clone as she gives it the phosphorus grenade.

The House

There’s also a thing about the house, Lena & Kane’s house in the flashbacks, and the house in which the expedition team overnights while in the Shimmer. I was not consciously aware on first viewing.

At first there are long establishing shots of the house at the beginning of the film, of the exterior of the house, of various rooms. At first this seems merely to be underscoring Kane’s absence and Lena’s seeming sense of loss and ongoing grief at a point in the film that we don’t yet know the details.

Of particular importance is the shot in front of the stairs with the photo frames on the right, a view of the kitchen table ahead. This is the perspective of Kane when he is summoned back at the foot of those stairs, later juxtaposed by Lena in the Shimmer-house. Reinforced again with a shot of the empty Shimmer-house table and cuts of Kane seated with his glass of water. There are almost identical shots establishing the house inside the Shimmer, notably the exterior.

This is where Netflix viewing comes in handy, run the film back and forward to compare.

What does it mean? Not sure, but it seems to emphasize the sense of Lena as unreliable narrator, as well as perhaps demonstrating an intense subjective quality of the expedition, us seeing through Lena’s eyes, and the Shimmer’s ability to refract memory and emotional resonance. Who knows really.

The Affair

Lena’s affair with her colleague. This felt out of place, but after reading the book in which there is no affair, rather an increasing emotional distance in the relationship and a compulsion to seek solitude in an empty lot, I guess I understand why they chose to go this route. Marital infidelity is more easily rendered for the camera, more easily communicates acute relationship dysfunction, is more relatable to a wider audience in terms of being a motivator for Kane to leave on a suicide mission or for Lena’s guilt and desire for forgiveness/closure or even further self-destruction, ultimately the reason she goes into the Shimmer too.

The scene in the bedroom, Dan: “you know, it’s not me you hate, it’s yourself.” Lena: “no, Dan, it’s you too.” Self-hate spreading cancerous.

Self-Destruction

As mentioned, self-destruction is a major theme in the film, and maybe that’s one of the reasons it resonates. Self-destruction as a human quality—“I think you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction, and they’re very different. Almost none of us commit suicide, whereas almost all of us self-destruct.”

How would this be understood by an alien intelligence. How could it be?

In the final scenes at the lighthouse, it seems that Kane succumbs to his self-destructive impulse as he detonates the phosphorus grenade as his double looks on behind the camera. A bit later, Lena confronts her would-be double which mirrors her every move, and who knows, perhaps internally as well as physically, learning from her movements.

She seems to impart this self-destructive compulsion to her double when it accepts the live grenade from her and completes its physical transformation briefly into her likeness. There seems to be some sort of facsimile or exploration of tenderness, the caress of Kane’s charred face, and of destruction, setting fire to the lighthouse and the burning away of the sandglass tree structures.

Lomax: “It was destroying everything.” / Lena: “It was making something new.”

The Entity

And some messy thoughts about the Shimmer and the “entity” itself: I liked that it was presented as so completely *alien* in the most fundamental quality of the word, “It’s not like us. It’s un-like us.”

It seems like it’s a kind of terraforming process with elements of mix and mimicry. “What did it want?” / “I don’t think it wanted anything.”

And maybe this is just me, but the thing at the lighthouse, while profoundly Other, seemed more exploratory than filled with menace. I found myself feeling a weird kind of empathy for the entity, saw weird parallels in it and in, maybe, a human infant in the way that babies’ perceptions and understanding of the world and of their bodies have to bud out, unfurling slowly but methodically from a very compact point. There is no morality or agenda, and at first no sense of identity or separateness, the infant still invisibly tethered to the body which created it, though slowly those tendrils of expanding perception extend out into the world and begin to manipulate, to mimic, to eventually create, and to self-destruct.

I have complicated feelings. Inscrutable maybe, even after three viewings.

Film vs Book

Finally, regarding serious departures from the source material, and having now read said source material, pretty much devoured them, I can see where fans of the Southern Reach Trilogy might be profoundly disappointed by the film. Such different creatures.

The filmmaker admits his “adaptation” is based on a singular reading of the first book, and thus is more of an impressionist interpretation based on memory. Like fan fiction drawn from a dream. An interesting way to go about it, and even more interestingly seemingly a way to capture more of the emotional resonance than the precise structure.

In any case, I turned to the books when I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. The bones are there, but there’s so much different: the characters known by job function rather than names, the lighthouse and the tunnel/(“tower”)/topographical anomaly, the hypnosis and the journals, the strangling fruit sermon scrawled in living letters descending down down down, the Crawler …

The books feel like a gorgeously complex and thorough expansion on the beauty, dread, and profound Otherness sketched out by the film. Where Annihilation the movie presents some tantalizingly unsettling ideas and questions, the Southern Reach Trilogy is the deep dive into the Weird, and I’m still processing …

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