Alex Garland‘s Annihilation (Paramount, 2.23) is “trippy,” all right — a visually imaginative, microbe-level, deep-in-the-muck monster-alien flick. And it will bring you down, down, down. It will drop you into a stinking, crawling-insect swamp of your own regrets and fears and lethargies and nightmares, and will make you long for the glorious release of shooting yourself in the mouth.
It’s mainly a CG/FX show with creatures and Spielbergian space aliens and dynamic production design. It’s “inventive” in terms of the day-glo tree tumors and in a generally fungal, micro-bacterial, fiendish-mitosis sort of way, but it makes you feel like shit. It’s unrelentingly grim — basically a film about lambs to the slaughter.
Annihilation is based on a trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer that I will never read, but more precisely on the same-titled book that launches the tale.
It’s focused on Area X, a creepy, muddy lowland area somewhere in the Southern U.S. that’s been invaded and biologically inflamed by aliens. It’s surrounded by a kind of psychedelic wall made of some kind of blow-bubble liquid.
Five well-armed soldier women — a biologist played by Natalie Portman plus Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny — enter this realm on foot, hoping to figure out the root of it all and at the same time save the life of Portman’s husband (Oscar Isaac) who has escaped Area X but is all fucked up…lethargic, no memory, spitting blood, ridden with disease.
In the book it’s a team of four, not five, that goes in, and the women represent the twelfth such expedition. The eleven previous expeditions have all ended in death or erasure for all the participants. Who would be stupid enough to join the twelfth expedition under these circumstances?
Annihilation is imaginative in ways that might feel vaguely new if you haven’t seen Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Stalker (’79) or, more to the point, read “Roadside Picnic,” the 1972 Russian horror novel by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky that inspired the Tarkovsky film. Or seen the two American-made sci-fi thrillers — John McTiernan‘s Predator and James Cameron‘s Aliens — that came in their wake.
So it’s not precisely “new”, but it’s definitely a grade-A, above-average haunted horror film for sci-fi dweebs. But Joe and Jane Popcorn? Not so much.
“This is imaginative, that’s imaginative,” I muttered to myself last night. “Not that I give that much of a shit, but it’s imaginative.”
Annihilation made me feel as if I was slowly dying of some intestinal disease with little gooey white worms crawling all over my innards and inside my brain and ear canals. It also made me want to give up and submit to the same kind of ghastly fate that the five explorers are mostly resigned to once they realize what they’ve gotten themselves into and what the odds are of escaping.
It’s a fetid, marshy, goo-gloppy horror-thriller that basically says “you’re fucked” from start to finish. We’re fucked, the planet is fucked, Portman is fucked, Alex Garland is fucked, Jennifer Jason Leigh is fucked and Paramount, which has been playing footsy with the release of this thing for at least a year and has sold off the international rights to Netflix, is fucked worst of all.
Come to think of it, Garland’s Never Let Me Go (’10) was also about lambs to the slaughter and a general sense of “we haven’t got a chance.” From here on, be warned that Garland is attracted to this kind of story. (And never forget, by the way, that MCN’s David Poland loved Never Let Me Go.)
Eleven months ago an extended trailer for Annihilation was shown at Cinemacon ’17. It wowed a lot of journos (myself among them) and exhibs. There was some talk about releasing it in late ’17, but that idea went south.
I’d been reading for months that it has a killer ending, but it doesn’t. It’s just another eye-popping CG finale in the vein that 2001: A Space Odyssey ended when Dave Bowman’s pod entered the Jupiter-space alien realm.
It’s basically a horror film that delivers enough of a twist on the old tropes to seem half-noteworthy as you’re heading out to the parking lot, but it’s so diseased and disgusting and deflating…Jesus.
If you’re in a house-of-horrors world, you need more than a horrified almost-victim (i.e., Portman-the-biologist) as your ally. You need someone who really and truly believes in survival and is determined to accomplish that goal, using not just strength but brains and guts and anything else she can muster. You need, in short, Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley.
Most of the time Portman is just observing the bloody, goo-gloppy horror as her face contorts with fear and astonishment. The movie is mainly about the design and the look of the nature-gone-wild manifestations, but the characters don’t do much except stare and say to themselves “oh, shit…how fucked are we?”
If James Cameron were directing/writing this they would send in a full-scale military team in with tanks and choppers and all the major armaments.
The fungal tree-tumor effect is more or less the same thing that the alien creatures did to the mining community in Aliens — they re-made the victims’ environment over according to their DNA, their image, their organic constitution.
And the tramping through the jungle as the team gets picked off one by one….that’s basically Predator. Nothing new under the sun.
Annihilation says from the get-go that life is cold and horrid and pulsing with gooey dread, and that any way you slice it you’re going to wind up biologically dominated and penetrated and diseased and fucked to the bone. Wonderful. What’s for dessert?