On the surface, Annihilation, Alex Garland’s adaptation of the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, is the rare blockbuster that seems to be hurtling inward, exposing the furthest reaches of its mind, the darkest corners of its imagination. Every twist and turn desperately in search of composure and truth reveals something much more than added clarity: an erosion of certainty. For Annihilation, the dream would be an endless self-refraction, uncovering new selves and fragmenting the vision until no possibility of a definitive, monolithic, totalizing statement, let alone a “pure” vision, remains. This form of “failure”, although I shouldn’t have to say it, would be no flaw; it’s the mark of any masterpiece of perfect imperfection, a sense of heterogeneity and a will to collide contradictory registers which cannot cohere into a prefabricated whole.
I worry, though, that Annihilation succumbs to an altogether different form of failure. Not the kind of failure I describe above, a white whale that sends a film perilously to the hinterlands of thought or tumbling in a head-strong rush of possibility, often in multiple contradictory registers, the mark of a film that sees beyond the cloistered realm of perfect formalism, or at least imagines an alternative biome to it. Annihilation seems to be weaving a tangled web in search of a fabled, crystalline center that encapsulates and defines the whole, as though it needs to clarify itself before it topples to pieces. There is a white whale that forever eludes this film, a sense in which it is doomed to fail, but the predominant question is whether the film is humble – or adventurous – enough to entertain its uncertainties and expose them, to dance with chaos, to admit to its incompleteness rather than to continue down a path toward a facsimile of closure. Or rather, whether its search beyond its own surfaces is merely, depressingly, surface-level.
Is Annihilation a truly unstable space, then, one flickering with the wonderful possibility of unexpected potential and, more importantly, uncharted territory? Does the film’s mind – or any consciousness for that matter – race forward with the excitement of the unknown, does it stop and peer into untold places? So many of these questions raise themselves in forms at once tangible, experiential, and metaphysical in Garland’s film, and they aren’t meant to provoke the answers that Johns Hopkins biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) seeks when she decides to venture into “The Shimmer,” a protoplasmic, ever-expanding, vaguely iridescent region of the Southern Atlantic coast which has somehow, and for some reason, malformed. Once a swamp, the area is now blocked by a sight-refracting, translucent light-barrier that seems at once threatening and curiously guileless, a blank face suggesting unknown danger, endless curiosity, and frightening potentiality.
Lena’s husband (Oscar Isaac) is the only “survivor” of a prior expedition into the Shimmer – the only survivor of any expedition in fact – although the status of that term, “survivor”, is more circumspect in Annihilation. Needing to know what caused her husband’s catatonia, or perhaps satiating some thirst for the unknown in her life, she decides to join an all-female crew – psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), psychicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) – for one more intrepid expedition into the increasingly uncertain quotient that is a world gone terribly awry.
A framing-device informs us, rather obliquely, that Lena survives her journey (although again, survive is a deeply tenuous word when films like Annihilation are on the table) and that some of her companions, unfortunately, do not. This decision tinges the film with a tragic futility befitting its philosophical screenplay, shifting the focus to questions about coping with death rather than the more trivial “who will die”. Fine enough, but at a more abstract level, Annihilation is essentially a cinematic allegory about cancer, a question it attempts to visualize, admirably, in its very formal caliber. A film essentially about genetic mutation, it mobilizes a core of unexpected genres and, in an ideal world, would collide them in ways which exposed tensions in their organizing logics rather than simply to be “unexpected”. In other words, it would, and ultimately does try to, mutate.
That sense of mutation is a fine inclination, and there’s probably a true work of genius crawling within Annihilation’s faux-intellectual desperation for attention. And the film does mutate into that work of genius at points. It does, admittedly, conclude with an astonishing collapse into narrative chaos, a spiral of ecstasy and cosmic destruction that tellingly both mirrors an endless abyss of nothingness, a primeval air of inexorable loss, and a beautiful fount of possibility. There’s also a scintillating, spine-tingling encounter with a mutated bear that works on a more corporeal level. And the production details are impeccable. Geoff Barlow and Ben Salisbury’s atonal score hinges on skull-burrowing, and Rob Hardy’s cinematography contrasts a muted, depleted “normal” world with pulsing blots of effervescent color in the Shimmer, imprinted with both a sense of magnetic radiance – hyper-presence – and harsh, digital-shot danger, while Mark Digby’s production design assists with a violent collage of the elegiac and the viciously gnarled.
Lord knows Annihilation is “thoughtful”, albeit in an exclusively conceptual way, as a compendium of ideas or a laundry list of themes rather than a film. For all its visual panache and consummate skill at marshaling the talents of its production crew to induce anxiety and, occasionally, dread, it has little inclination to explore sound and image as animating tools on an imaginative canvas. Throughout, the filmmaking is distressingly literal, dispassionately documenting the narrative’s events as unambiguous truths rather than refracting them or reflecting upon them. And, although the film can be analyzed without any particular questions about “perception”, it is depressingly peculiar that a film about the endless propagation of alternative sensory possibilities is almost entirely disinterested in the possibilities of perception afforded to a visual medium. While Garland’s previous film Ex-Machina boasted a specious, overly-verbose screenplay, it flared with surreptitious set decor and insinuating, suggestive gazes between characters – and, crucially, between the film and the characters – Annihilation is too obviously only a scripted affair.
Not to mention a scripted affair that masquerades its paucity of follow-through in an atmosphere of ponderous false-introspection. For all the beauty, it isn’t until the final minutes that the film truly rouses itself to confronting its beauty, to mobilizing its script toward any genuinely inward purpose in scenes which finally imply, and allow us to infer, rather than simply depicting. Oblique films should refract the mind, chasing down phalanxes populated with thought. Like Icarus, an “intelligent” film should brave the limits of its consciousness, exposing its eventual fragility to conquer the ideas that do not merely populate it but animate it fundamentally. Failure, in this construction, is a mark of intellectual bravery, a courageous humility to rapaciously entertain images and sounds with alternative, or better yet simultaneous, gaiety and trepidation. Annihilation, like too many art-house blockbusters, instead contains its ideas, curtails its ambitions, hedges its bets, and uses obvious narrative gestalts and hop-skips as short-cuts toward actually bewildering the audience. It masks wide-eyed confusion as genuine curiosity, obviously ostentatious visual tics as avant-garde experimentation, and, above all, confusion and temporal editing games as a sense of impermanence, erosion, and bewildering ephemerality. But there isn’t, until a final trance-like dance and a denouement pair of gazes, a moment which truly approaches the sublime, let alone the unfathomable.
For me, Annihilation should be a buckled, misshapen thing, but it’s rather uniformly composed, laundering a fairly safe core with experimental edges and exposed nerves, mostly (slowly, long after we have) acknowledging that it’s about mutation and cancer and then treating this high-concept as a solution to questions it hasn’t actually asked rather than a problem to concerns that would be fascinating to address. It tries to lurk in the darkest corner of the imagination, but for the most part, it’s a relatively streamlined film, oscillating between corporate monotony and outre experimentation without any real blurring between the two, as though one showy moment excuses the monotony of the preceding 15 minutes. In this capacity, the baffling comparisons to 2014’s female-fronted sci-fi Under the Skin allude me. That earlier film radiates a sense of astonishing alienation, of cracked-mirror experimentation, of intangible loneliness, of a kind of existential predation which exceeds mere horror and into malevolence of the soul. There’s a metaphysical quotient to Annihilation, but it’s disconnected from any humanity outside of contrite suggestions about people overcoming loss and visual platitudes about the importance of fighting for a conception of life that the film mistakenly believes itself to be questioning.
One might backwards-propagate the achievements of the film’s conclusion and organize the film around its logic, suggesting a more experimental, inquisitive film than Garland has created. But the film itself is also busy needlessly pandering to other audiences rather than catering to its own internal interests and ambitions, sanctifying itself with self-insulating reminders of its own intelligence. We’re ultimately left with an insecure film in this regard, one seemingly more invested in showing off its intellect than in exploring it. Contoured by its own pretensions, Annihilation is sober, even pompous, but hardly enlightening, even if it admittedly and admirably doesn’t feel the need to underline all of its imaginative flourishes in obvious strokes, which is a plus. But it’s not an ecosystem of genuine uncertainty, exhibiting no sense that Garland is actually inviting questions outside the narrow corridor of his narrative. Until the end, the film’s thoughts are mostly circumscribed, manicured; there’s no sense of an idea threatening to get away from the film, something slipping beyond it, of a mind desperately running out of control and an imaginative pace truly awry, lost in its own inner gambits and curiosities.
Ultimately, then, for all its pretensions, Annihilation does not think through or with cinema but merely as cinema, and whatever else its achievements may be, its pretensions feel unearned in light of its timidity. The film’s ridiculously mismarketed advertisements are obviously indicative of wider questions about the desires of the film-going public, but if Annihilation is the “intellectual” alternative, it also suggests equally necessary questions about how we define self-consciously mature cinema.