Saturday, March 17, 2018

'Annihilation' Is a Freaky and Trippy Science Fiction Film About Self-Destruction and Self-Reflection

Annihilation is a science fiction horror film written and directed by Alex Garland.  Like his previous work, Ex Machina, this movie is thought-provoking and arthouse-y.  In fact, its producers thought it was “too intellectual” and “too complicated” but Garland refused to dumb it down to appeal to a wider audience.  Hence, this leads to the movie being released internationally through Netflix instead of having a wide theatrical release.  After watching it, at a business standpoint, I understand the concerns of the producers.  It’s indeed the kind of movie that won’t have massive appeal, and thus, won’t be profitable.  It can get so weird and metaphorical, to the point that it can turn off most viewers.

Basically, it’s about a bizarre anomaly that has mysteriously popped out and engulfed a certain area in the United States.  Named “The Shimmer”, it has been slowly growing for three years since it appeared but has been kept a secret from the public.  Inside it, topography, physics, and biology – especially biology – are warped.  And no one from the expeditions sent by the government into it has ever come back, until a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaacs) does.  However, he soon goes into coma after reuniting with his wife, Lena (Natalie Portman).  Determined to find answers, she – a biologist and a former soldier – joins the next, all-women expedition – composed of a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), and a geologist (Tuva Novotny) – into “The Shimmer.”
There are things to like about this movie at surface level.  The performances are stellar, and the visuals are striking.  There’s suspense and intrigue in the storytelling, especially because of all the uncanny and fascinating stuff that the characters encounter inside “The Shimmer.”  Most notable of all are the wildlife, which includes shark-toothed alligators, human-shaped plants, and the most disturbing bear mutant ever.  However, once the film nears the end, it’s as if it gets more muddled and pretentious, that it eventually reaches an unsatisfying, pointless finish.

That was how I felt about Annihilation during the first viewing.  I was fascinated by “The Shimmer” and its elements, and I thought the narrative was doing a great job in executing a “What the F is going on?” feel to it.  But I thought the payoff didn’t match the intriguing build up.  So the film’s initial impression on me is that it was okay, but confusing and underwhelming overall.
I was actually already starting to write a review for this film when I chanced upon interviews of Garland, Isaacs, and Portman.  And from them, I picked up some insights which I thought would have made the film interesting if those were indeed the cases.  So I decided to watch the film again.

At second viewing, armed with the insights I picked up from those interviews, the movie becomes significantly better.  I didn’t get too blown away.  But I learned that, based on the available information in the plot, it does have mindblowing implications.  Thus, I got to pick up and appreciate the subtleties happening on screen – with the editing, storytelling, landscapes, etc. – which, I realized, were brilliant.  Furthermore, it has a variety of themes richly playing out in the story – including cancer, marriage and adultery, and evolution and survival – which basically all come down to self-destruction and self-reflection.
In the end, Annihilation is a multi-layered film that can be looked at in a variety of ways.  But it isn’t for everyone.  It’s not the kind of movie you would want to watch to have an “easy good time.”  However, if you are in the condition to chore through it, it could prove to be a very stimulating experience. 

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