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Friday, February 23, 2018

Annihilation

Alex Garland's Annihilation has stirred up some pre-release hype the past few weeks over the fact that its studio, Paramount Pictures, doubts its chances at the box office, and are not only doing little to promote it, but are also completely skipping a theatrical release in some areas outside of the US, and putting it straight to Netflix.  My guess is that they're still feeling sore from the response Mother! got when it came out last fall, and are mentally preparing for another audience backlash.

This is, of course, ridiculous.  This might be a challenging and polarizing film that is hard to label (I guess it could technically be labeled a Sci-Fi drama with elements of a thriller, but that sounds a bit too basic), and of course audiences will likely be divided on it.  That's the whole point of the film.  I'm sure the studio execs knew this when they greenlit the script.  Now, likely because of a past film's performance at the box office, they are trying to squash this one before it even gets a chance for the public to make up its mind.  Instead of letting people see for themselves, they are slowly pushing this out like they're embarrassed by it.  They even withheld it from critics until just a few days before release. (As of this writing, the film is sitting at a 88% critic score and a respectable 72% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.) If this movie bombs at the box office, the studio will only have itself to blame, and certain people will have missed out on a great and thought-provoking film experience.

And this is a great movie, falling just short of an amazing one.  The only thing holding it back with me is that it employs a story-telling device that I seldom find successful.  That would be telling the whole story in flashback, with the film opening near the end of the story, and having the main character recount everything that happened.  In this case, a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman) is being questioned in a secure room by a man in a bio hazard suit.  There are multiple people standing just outside of the room, watching through the windows, also in protective masks.   The man questioning her asks about her mission, and what happened to those who were with her.  She tells him and us, so we already know the fates of the characters before the story proper has even begun.  I have never been a big fan of this story structure.  It can be used successfully, but most of the time, this approach of starting at the end and going backwards always kills a tiny bit of the mystery for me.  It's a personal thing, really.

As Lena tells her story, we flashback to the events that led up to this interrogation.  At the start, she's a successful biologist who has been grieving over the disappearance and presumed death of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), a soldier with the army who was sent away on a secret mission one year ago, and has not been heard from since.  Lena was in the very tentative stages of moving on, when Kane suddenly appears in their home with no memory of how he got there, or even what's happened to him or where he's been for the past year.  He is dead-eyed, distant, and then he starts spitting up blood.  In further flashbacks, we see how Kane was once a passionate and lively man.  That's right, we have flashbacks within flashbacks here, which is another personal pet peeve of mine.  It's not that the story is hard to follow.  Garland's screenplay actually pieces the story out very clearly, and even though it jumps around to different time periods, it's never confusing where the current scene we're watching is set.  Again, it's just a personal thing, and I'm not a fan of when filmmakers employ multiple flashbacks to tell the story.

Both Lena and Kane are sent to a research facility where Kane is placed under quarantine, and Lena slowly learns of the facility's purpose.  On the outskirts of the walls of the building, there is a glowing wall of light that the scientists at the facility refer to as The Shimmer.  It appeared when a meteor fell from space and struck a nearby lighthouse a few years ago.  Now, the wall of light is growing.  At the moment, it is mostly covering the surrounding swampland, but in time, it will grow large enough to engulf the facility, and eventually spread across the state and possibly even the nation.  No one knows the purpose of The Shimmer.  Field teams and soldiers have been sent through the wall of light to investigate, but nobody has come back out, and all radio communication goes dead.  Lena soon learns from a head scientist at the facility, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), that her husband's secret mission involved entering the area within The Shimmer, and that he is the first person to come out of it.  It is presumed that anyone that goes within the wall of light either goes crazy and kills each other, or are killed by something or someone that may be within it.

Learning all of this and wanting to know about what happened to her husband, Lena signs up to join the next team that is going to venture inside The Shimmer.  The team is made up of female scientists from the facility, and include the tough Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the shy and timid Josie (Tessa Thompson) and the gentle Cass (Tuva Novotny).  The team is led by Dr. Ventress, and as they step through the wall of light and try to make it to the lighthouse where all of this originated, the movie expertly feeds us information while constantly keeping us intrigued.  We are still on Earth, and yet there is something very foreign and alien about the surrounding landscape, and some of the events that the team discover, which I will not reveal.  We also learn small tidbits of info about what happened to the previous teams (including Kane's) through writings that have been left behind, as well as video diaries and journals that hint at something truly horrifying.

Annihilation does an excellent job of not only earning out interest with the clues it doles out, but paying it off with some spectacular and truly suspenseful set pieces.  This is just as much a thriller as it is a Sci-Fi drama that asks important questions about humanity and how we may be viewed by a force or life not our own.  One of the more immersive ways that the movie creates tension is with the tremendous sound design.  There are two moments that come to mind, one is when the team of women come face-to-face with something that mimics the sounds of its victims, and another is during the climactic moments, which creates sounds so unearthly, it's enough to set you on edge.  Another aspect is the visual design, which can be beautiful and foreign all at once.  We are drawn in by the splendor of some of the settings within The Shimmer, because they do not seem of this Earth, even though we know they are.

I am certain that a lot of the answers the film arrives at are likely to spark debate within anyone who watches it, and there is never anything wrong with that.  If anything, it should guarantee that the film gets multiple viewings by those who appreciate the film. (I, for one, am looking forward to see if I like the film even more with repeated viewings.) This is a dense film, but it is not impossible to decipher.  It gives you enough information to make your own opinion as to what exactly is inside The Shimmer, while at the same time leaving enough open that it can spark imagination and conversation.  This is not a movie that provides more questions or confusion than answers.  It is not frustrating, vague or even that confusing.  It is dense in the best ways, and while we may not understand everything, we know more than enough that we walk out feeling engaged and fascinated rather than cheated.

Despite my personal gripes about the story structure, which is easy to forgive in the face of everything the movie does so well, Annihilation is a rewarding experience for anyone who is willing to give it the time it needs to process in their minds.  Unlike Mother!, this is not a film full of ideas that almost seems to be daring the audience to make a connection or figure it out.  It's challenging, but not impenetrable.  It's a shame that Paramount does not see this, and I hope their lack of faith in the project does not keep people away.


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