»6th January 2019

Film Rant: Annihilation

Annihilation is the latest sci-fi from the guy who directed Ex Machina, you know, that science fiction film from a few years ago that wasn't based on a comic or Star Warstrek. I enjoyed Ex Machina when I seen it at the cinema and Annihilation had some light buzz surrounding it, so it was an easy click on Netflix. What follows can't really be called a 'review'. In the grand tradition of the Cube, this is one of my lengthy, dense, rants on something that was hot like six months ago.

Okay so to get all the busywork out of the way, here's a quick summary of my thoughts on this, assuming I was actually doing a proper review: Impressive and imaginative visuals and design let down by a hole-riddled, clichéd plot and unimpressive character performances. Grade: C, 2/5, 4/10. Go watch Arrival, Ex Machina or The thing instead.

So Annihilation is doing the whole 'female cast' thing. In fact, it's doing a whole bunch of things, such as the whole The thing thing. No the remake of The thing thing, whatever that thing was, no, the John Carpenter's The thing thing. music/soundtrack - good, last of us

Everyone says that Natalie Portman isn't a great actress. She certainly has odd delivery. 'Why did she say it like that?' 'Is that the script trying something clever?' Just imagine a piece of text, then add in a bunch of random emphases and get Alexa/Cortana/Siri/GLaDOS to say it and you have pretty much nailed what it's like listening to her. She's not terrible. Sorry, I mean, she's not terrible. Or maybe, she's not terrible. Eh, we'll fix it in post.

The way I see it, you've got two things going on in this film. (Well, actually there's a Thing as well- [Christ, this joke outstayed it's welcome]

Okay, I'll try that again without the jokes[citation needed]. You've got two things going on in Annihilation: A character study--watching how the characters struggle and unravel as they venture deeper into the Shimmer. And you've got an ideas-heavy, highly original sci-fi concept in the form of the Shimmer, i.e. the phenomenon that the characters are exploring. I think the Shimmer concept was great, it gave us some amazing visuals, and as a scenario was what hooked me into the film. The character side of things was where it fell down for me.

The film was trying to do the whole thing thing, or Alien thing. That is, getting a bunch of different characters; putting them under pressure or killing them off; whittling them down and watching them turn on each other--Ten Little Indians. This whole thing is a shortcut to engaging character-driven stories and has obviously been done loads of times before.

In Annihilation, I just don't think it works. None of the characters were particularly likeable. I didn't really feel like I'd got to know the characters before they all started turning on each other and falling apart, so the bear scene--no, not the first one, the bear scene, you know, the terrifying one--was wasted because instead of thinking 'oh shit, what is that, oh god, they're all going to die!' I was thinking 'Christ, these guys gals are all dumb, oh look, cool creature design!'

Okay, so time to get nitpicky Is it really nit-picking to take apart the story and say, 'hang on, that was all bullshit'. Saying someone is nit-picking is more to do with shaming them for the thought-crime of not liking something, rather than saying 'actually, I think you're losing sight of the big picture.'

I'm going to try not to have to explain the entire film here.

A meteor hurtles towards Earth and smashes into a lighthouse. After a few days/weeks a weird shimmering bubble surrounds the area around the lighthouse and begins to expand. The government? The military? Scientists? Whoever decide to investigate what's going on and try to probe and explore this phenomenon. Here's what we're told about the Shimmer:

Now at this point, I'd have been happier if the film had just started here. 'There's this strange phenomena, let's investigate and get to the bottom of it.' This worked fine for Arrival: 'An alien ship has landed, we need to make first contact.' Most of Arrival is just you watching these characters tackle this problem, Amy Adams, the protagonist, is some kind of linguist or something--maybe she'll be able to figure out how the aliens communicate? LOGIC! As the story develops, Amy Adams (and the audience) finds out more about these aliens and bang, you have a good film. (Everyone loves Arrival.)

Instead, Annihilation fast forwards past this opening 'oh shit, what's this strange phenomena, perhaps we should investigate' stage and instead we join Natalie Portman at the 'oh shit, nothing's working, uh- maybe we should like, send... women?' stage. Because women would do a better job? Maybe there is some subtle hand-wringing feminist agenda here and I'm just not seeing it because I'm some massive patriarch.

Natalie Portman's husband (Po Dameron Steve Jobs) is some special forces guy, (he, like, flies an X-Wing or something is really special forces) and he's been on a super secret mission been into the Shimmer with his special forces buddies and it all went Aliens. He's the only person to ever make it out of the Shimmer alive, but he seems... different he's all weird and distant and is probably brainwashed or something. So the Government (we've been through this) Whoever kidnaps Natalie Portman by dragging her from an ambulance after her husband starts going into shock. Apparently the whole extraordinary rendition thing from 2007-whatever is still one of the most scary concepts script writers can come up with to frighten our liberal minds. It's basically the Guardian-reading equivalent of the loud jump scare in a slasher film. Christ, this is getting off-track.

So at this point, the Whoever are authoritarian bad guys for literally no reason. Anyway, after being kidnapped, Queen Amidala is told about her husband's ill-fated mission. 'Okay, so why are you telling me this?' Just feel free to add emphasis wherever you like, this is Natalie Portman. 'Well, Mathilda, we want you to go into the Shimmer now.' 'Okay... WHHHHHYYYYYY?' That's right, Annihilation, WHHHYYYY? So Natty is hanging out on a balcony looking at the Shimmer and some woman comes over and is all 'hey, you're hot, but I'm not coming onto you, come over and meet the team.'

So apparently this lot are going to be sent into the Shimmer:

So apparently this lot are going to be sent into the Shimmer:

So the Dirty Dozen wander off into the Shimmer dressed as Ghostbusters and have inexplicably been given assault rifles--because they're scientists and they're going in to study things shoot things. Could they not spare fifteen seconds to just show someone at least showing a bunch of civilians how to fire a gun, in the same scene they could have revealed to the other characters that Natalie Portman has 'been in the army and shit' too, rather than have them find out later for cheap (and pointless) drama.

Pretty much immediately everything starts going wrong. For some reason they have to walk into the Shimmer, because plot convenience. They set up a camp and completely lose track of time, having apparently lost two or three days without realising, at this point the sensible thing would have been to turn around, leave the Shimmer, and like, come back more prepared. But no, they must advance into the plot. They quickly turn on each other, once it dawns on them that they have no idea what they are doing. For what it's worth, we don't really know what they're doing either, they have to get to the source of the Shimmer, so that they can, study it and report back? shoot it with machine guns or something. There are interesting visuals and a few tid-bits of the science supposedly underpinning the whole thing but the rest of the film basically plays out as Predator/Aliens, but trying to do the whole thing thing as well.

Peppered throughout the little excursion into Cosmic Insanity World are flashbacks to Natalie Portman having an affair. If this film weren't breaking the glass ceiling so hard, you'd say that these scenes achieved the important goal of getting some T&A into the film, because it's all practical workwear and overalls otherwise. It's hard to tell how much of these were hallucinations, I think the point was that she was feeling guilty about the affair or something. (????)

Plot holes

There aren't just plot holes, there are entire tears across the plot. Like some tattered garment, it can't really hold itself together. If you lay it flat on a table and show a bit of goodwilling, it still looks like something you could wear, but it's going to fall to pieces as soon as you pick it up. The plot doesn't make sense. Things happen for plot convenience, not because there is an internal logic. Things happen because similar things happened the same way in similar stories. Let's break it down.

The whole 'the characters go mad and turn on each other' thing. The thing did this the best: the characters were trapped in their antarctic base, the thing was impersonating them so they couldn't trust each other. I'm meeting Annihilation more than halfway when I guess that the characters turn on each other because the Whoever are really sketchy and won't tell anyone what happened to the other teams, what they're supposed to be doing, why they just can't send in the army, blah blah blah. There's no clear reason why the characters couldn't just turn around and walk straight back out when it became clear (pretty much immediately) that they were completely out of their depth.

The whole 'team goes into some hostile environment to kill an alien' thing. Predator and Aliens did this better. The teams in both films are elite soldiers; clearly very capable (of killing things). They're soldiers, so they're used to working together as a team. Their team starts to fall apart because they're completely outclassed by the alien(s). The team in Annihilation are a couple of scientists, a psychologist, and a paramedic. I had to check this on Wikipedia, maybe I'd mis-remembered it, but they're going into the Shimmer on a research expedition. Isn't research usually conducted with like, goals? Specific, achievable goals like, 'go into the Shimmer, see what's going on, then come out.' Wikipedia claims Natalie Portman volunteered for this expedition, so was the original plan to send just four of them in? Do research expeditions usually need to be armed? Shouldn't they have brought some like, equipment to measure stuff with? How were they planning on reporting their findings? Despite what Wikipedia, and the characters in the film claim, what they're really doing in the film is going in to kill aliens because this is an action horror film and that's what needs to happen.

When the shit hits the fan, Jennifer Jason Leigh says that she's in charge and that they have to keep going on. Again, what actual authority does she have? The excuse that 'it's too dangerous to back' (why?) is frequently given, which kind of knackers the idea that this is a research expedition. Whilst trying to wrap my head around how dumb the plot is, I ended up thinking I'd simply forgotten about the bit where the characters discuss what the sinister motives of the Whoever and Jennifer Jason Leigh actually are. You know, the bit where the other characters decide to turn on her because they don't trust her and she is keeping secrets. That bit that would make the film make more sense. Yeah, that wasn't in the film.

The whole 'we need to understand this strange alien phenomena' thing. Arrival did this much, much better. I've already explained ad nauseum that the film really didn't put any weight into the expedition being a scientific one, so I'm not going to say much more about this. Anyway, in Arrival, Amy Adams is asked if she can help make contact with the alien ship that has arrived on earth. She isn't kidnapped by the Government and then volunteers to help because she's... thinking about her husband or something? Amy Adams is sought out by the Government because she's a really good linguist and they're going to need someone who's good at decoding languages.

It's not really clear what the goal of going into the Shimmer ever is, so it's not really clear how any of the character's skills are going to come in in useful. We're told that they've found out a few strange properties of the Shimmer through trying to use drones and things, but the fact that no one came out alive up to Oscar Isaac, kind of shows you that no one was looking at this as something that needs studying with science.

Armchair Screenplay Writing

Because it's fun and because I'm doubling down on the whole armchair critic thing, here's some suggestions for how they could have gone venturing into the Shimmer:

The fact that they sent the ladies in with assault rifles suggests they were expecting danger. In that case:

Ah right, well in that case, and seeing as drones didn't work:

Soft and squishy

Okay, so this isn't even approaching hard sci-fi, we're after some drama, fine, here's another suggestion for a team of five since a 200-strong team of soldiers and scientists doesn't let you re-tread whatever themes this was trying to explore:

Oh look, some stock characters. Hey, at least it would make sense.

More Plot Holes

If the goal was to get to the light house (at this point, and I'm guessing you noticed, that's a big if) (actually, it's a [big][big] if, but, for not the first time in this update, I digress) then why didn't they go to the lighthouse by sea? If they had to insist on walking, then why not walk along the beach which would, presumably, be a lot easier than going through the swamp?


Or Alternatively: You're Missing The Point

'Look, clearly, the film was exploring themes and you're just missing the point, okay?'

'It's about self destruction.' Oh, so you listened to that bit in the film where Jennifer Jason Leigh explained to the audience how the film is about self-destructive behavior--you know, because she's a psychologist. Okay, let's give it some leeway here. So Oscar was married to his job as a super-secret-special-forces guy rather than Natalie Portman, so he's like destroying his own marriage. Natalie Portman was cheating on him anyway, so she's doing the same. And like, the other characters had trauma in their past, and one of them had terminal cancer and was like, resigned to her fate. So that's... well it's sort of self-destru-- Okay, but wasn't the point of the Shimmer that it refracts and distorts; that it changes things rather than destroying them?

So maybe the characters aren't self-destructive, they're just... changing? Okay, but the film went to great lengths to say how the Shimmer was specifically not destroying things. So we're supposed to contrast that with what the characters were doing. Okay, what?

'Look, dumbass, the film is about cancer, the Shimmer is like an alien cosmic cancer thing except it affects everything.' Yeah, I actually liked that about the Shimmer. So what, is the self-destructive behaviour of the characters supposed to mirror the Shimmer in that such behaviour is like a cancer or something?

'Fuck you, it's about women.' No, it's not. The characters were so thinly drawn I don't really think you can say it's about anything character-based. The female characters seemed just as incompetent as the male ones, so that's progress? 'No, it's about women because we say it is.'

'It's celebrating women in STEM.' It's not celebrating women in anything. The characters in this were useless. Just to remind you, Arrival did this whole thing better. Amy Adams was a boss in Arrival.

'The Shimmer is like, giving birth to some sort of new life form, and like, women give birth too, right?' Just stop it with the women thing, you're embarassing yourself.

It didn't matter that the characters in the film were women, that was incidental, they could have all been men and it wouldn't have mattered, they still didn't have anything to say and they were all dumb.

'I'm not done. The alien thing at the end looked like a vagina.' Look, sometimes a cosmic reality-bending void is just a cigar.

'Okay, it's about family or bereavement or something.' There was the bit where they see the two deers, and like, one of the characters had lost her daughter. So that was like, echoing that or something? That's pretty tenuous.

In Confusion

Right, that's it, you're fed up of reading about how I didn't like Annihilation and I'm fed up of having what was supposed to be a one-writing-session-and-done blog update sat in my Notepad++ tab for nearly two weeks. Yeah, it's the 14th 15th of January and the date on this is the 6th--the dates on Blog updates have been pretty off for a while. So, in conclusion...

Stray Thoughts

But wait, there's more! Like the crappy encore to a band you were dragged along to see despite only knowing that one song. The band have walked off stage and then come back on, ready to perform that one song you know. Huh, I don't recognise this intro, maybe they just play it differently live. Nope, pretty sure this isn't the song I know. Oh well.

Extar, over, out.


TCP/IP, it's fucking me off. Other protocols doing little more. Definitely got worse. Now making me curse. Removing IPX. Will it ever work? Never!