Annihilation (Garland, 2018)

Will 2018 give us another film as strange, mesmerizing and uncompromisingly cerebral as Annihilation? As I sit here writing this, I am inclined to say no. I’m sure there will be films I’ll like better, and films that will devastate me to greater degrees, but I’m not sure the year will bring me another film with such a powerful and striking vision. The unique way in which the Shimmer is presented, and how science is used so effectively to comment on (and mirror) the self-destructive tendencies of human behaviour, allows the film to breathe with such possibility and scope. I especially admire how every event in the Shimmer is a key building block to unleashing the mysteries of the magnificent ending, and that nothing has been included just for the sake of it. How easy it would have been for Garland to add a few superfluous scenarios simply because he could flex his visual effect muscles and give us a spectacle. Instead, he restrains himself so that the focus is on the psychologies of the characters, and how their brokenness is manifested in the Shimmer’s rampant insidiousness. And though we do get some impressive CGI work here and there, it’s always an organic part of the journey. The screaming bear? I mean, come on. Fucking amazing.

There are only a couple little criticisms I can point out. It would have been nice to have a minority play Natalie Portman’s character, for one. I’m starting to get annoyed at films that cast minorities in supporting roles, especially ones that are killed off during the film while the Caucasian hero/heroine survives in order to save the day. Let’s, you know, invert the paradigm and have the white people die off for once? That’s not to deride Portman’s performance, which is uniformly excellent. But how exciting would it be to see a black woman, an Asian woman, or a Latina in her place! Another thing that bothered me a little was the inelegance of the flashbacks, which crop up at weird intervals and don’t feel worth the effort. I never found myself caring for Oscar Isaac’s character to begin with, and the flashbacks didn’t change anything. Portman’s Lena having an affair with her colleague was more in tune with developing her character, but one brief little glimpse would’ve sufficed. Heck, it might’ve made more sense to have it happen right before Isaac’s character returned.

I also wasn’t partial to some of the dialogue, which needed more finessing. But none of these problems really interfered with the film’s power and hold on me, which continues even now. I admire its sophistication and ability to tell such a human story with so much intelligence, taking on issues of the Anthropocene with a dexterous and effulgent vision. The finale is one of the most profound and divine moments I’ve witnessed in film since Malick’s The Tree of Life, and seeing it unfold on a big screen was like a special privilege given to me by Garland. I’d imagine it was much the same for anyone who saw it. I hope this will be another Get Out, in the sense that it will stick closely with critics until the end of the year, when it will be reappraised and seen as one of the year’s finest achievements. It’s almost sacrilegious that it got dumped this early and so unceremoniously, but studios are dumb sometimes, what can you do.