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The problem with Annihilation is it’s not intellectual enough

By Monica Chen

When I first heard in 2015 that Annihilation was being developed into a movie by Alex Garland, with Natalie Portman as the lead, I was excited and had high hopes. It sounded full of possibilities, ideas that were full of potential waiting to be fleshed out.

But two and a half years later, Annihilation turned out to be a huge disappointment. It was even nauseating to watch, and worse, the reviews that accompanied it were just as nauseating. “Complex,” “thought-provoking,” were among the praises heaped on this very passion-less, claustrophobic movie, and it was even defended for its poor ticket sales for being “too intellectual.”

Actually, the movie was not intellectual enough. This often happens with book-to-movie adaptations, but unfortunately, the book wasn’t as intellectual as it was sold either.

I had been looking forward to Annihilation because it had such a great premise, one that I thought would reflect and expand on all the questions percolating in the culture. From the book’s back cover: “Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide… In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition. The group is made up of four women… .”

This synopsis was full of tantalizing mystery and potential. What is Area X? Was it formed because of environmental devastation? Is “Area X” a spiritual space, a stand-in for that part of ourselves that engages with nature and wilderness? Is it about how humanity used to have “Eden” but lost it, and is this book about how we keep going back to that place, full of fear but also full of potential, and try to recover it? Having four women in the expedition was also interesting since women have had different ways of relating to nature from men. How would women, with our often coalescing, connecting body chemistries, interact with nature in that kind of environment? Is “Annihilation” about the human potential to destroy our own planet, and ourselves, our self-annihilation?

A little more background:

For the years leading up to this movie, for mostly this entire decade, there has been a growing knowledge about nature and growing nature spirituality in the culture. Photos of plants and animals, videos of wild animals interacting with people, quotes from Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, observations from scientists, are abundant online. There has been so much wonderment and curiosity about nature: joy in learning about animals, the delight in flowers in the wild or growing just down the street, and inspiration and expansiveness that come from work in science and technology.

Annihilation did not capture or reflect any of that. Neither the book nor the movie fleshed out any of the questions I had. And neither the writer Jeff VanderMeer nor the director Alex Garland, who directed Ex Machina and wrote The Beach, tapped into what was already in the culture. Actually, I think the movie did something really awful. Because of the timing of its release in winter 2017-2018, which was such a chaotic, dark time, it threatened to distort the fragile, delicate inspirations about nature that have been happening in the culture that needed to be expressed, reflected, and protected, not talked over. Instead of expanding outward from the book to become a potentially daring, exploratory storytelling, the movie went further into a claustrophobic corner, with Alex Garland seemingly adamant about drawing the viewer into a dysfunctional way of seeing both nature and human nature.

In Garland’s Annihilation, nature has no wonder or mystery. It’s just an oily mess. It’s a radioactive beam of light or monstrous mutations of plant and animals. Instead of “Area X,” an expansive imaginary space full of questioning, Garland minimized it into a place called “The Shimmer,” which is like a fish bowl separated from the rest of the world by a curtain of oily-looking rainbow light. There is absolutely no delight or beauty, or much intellectual curiosity. Everything in this world, even the sunlight, is toxic and can’t be trusted. The characters are also flat, lack real motivations, and trust neither each other or themselves. Somehow, Garland had Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who are charming, vibrant actresses, wander around vacantly in this fish bowl, and all they do is get scared and say very cliched lines, mostly behaving more like caricatures of videogame characters than real human beings.

Spoiler alert: Here’s the most awful, frustrating thing that happened with Portman’s character, Lena, “the biologist,” who has no motivation other than advancing the plot at the whim of Garland. She joins the expedition to go into “the Shimmer” because her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, comes back from his mission injured and sick. “I owe him,” is the only explanation she gives. Does she not want to stay and care for him? Does she not have family and friends she’ll miss? A cat she’ll worry about feeding? Apparently not. Lena eventually discovers the version of her husband that came back was a clone, and that gives her motivation to fight for her own life and resist the effects of “the Shimmer.” But at the end of the movie, she embraces the clone, because she also is mutating into an alien. It’s all so meaningless, it’s just laughable.

What happened that this movie was such a mess? You get the feeling Garland basically re-made his book, The Beach, which was also a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, but chose the worst option for every change he made. Instead of characters having more fleshed out, expansive motivations, they had smaller perspectives and were devoid of real passion. Instead of nature being more deeply felt and related to, he made it more abstract and objectified.

Some good things about the movie: The cinematography blankets everything with close up, hazy shots, much like Gypsy, the Netflix show with Naomi Watts. It’s a very head-in-the-clouds, yet sensually aware world. A world of psychological possibilities. It does capture how the real world has felt and reflects how people have behaved at times this decade.

As for the book, it is too literal. The book is also overpraised, way overpraised. It’s clumsily written. The narrator never sounds like a real woman. A lot of the book also sounds cobbled together from just-learned bits and pieces about nature, science and how to go camping. The “bizarreness” of nature, in both the book and the movie, is used as a substitute for emotional depth. The plot takes a turn that’s very different from the mysteries and potential the synopsis hints at. (Major spoiler: “Annihilation” is just the word spoken by one character to kill the others. Talk about ruining the imaginative potential of the story!) Reading Annihilation, you have to wonder if VanderMeer meant to tell a story that’s completely different from what he wrote, one set in the real world, about real political fights between people.

In the end, for me, Annihilation was a book and movie that emphasized – amplified – the worst parts of what was happening in the world and in nature, without expressing or expanding any of the real intellectual currents that had been underway for years. So why the overpraise?

I’m guessing, as I see the movies planned for the next few years, that Annihilation was the first of some movies that want to be emotionally instructive to young people – Centennials, the generation after the Millennials, who are in their formative teen years right now. And maybe not emotionally instructive, but spiritually instructive.

The giveaway was when the characters started talking about the destruction coded into our genes. “Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke, we destabilize the good job and a happy marriage. These aren’t decisions, they’re impulses,” says Leigh’s Dr. Ventress to Lena. “Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell.” This is dialogue that sounds deeper than it actually is. This movie is strangely hung up on aging, as if it’s dying, and on imperfection, or life itself, as if it’s self-destruction.

And in winter 2017-2018, Millennials were much more concerned about survival as the country was tearing itself apart, worried about actual destruction, not ruminating on “self-destruction.” And anyway, can a movie be emotionally instructive to young people if it can’t even reflect what’s actually going on with adults?

So I don’t think Annihilation was for young people. It’s clear too that the movie, which didn’t do very well at the box office, was rejected by audiences of all ages. So then, who was it actually for?

I still have an image of the movie that could have been, based on the promising things about it I read in 2015. I had pictured the movie as more of a meditative psychological horror. A gray landscape, maybe foggy, maybe windy, with “the tower” as a black monolith in the distance and a hidden staircase. A landscape abundant in nature and full of hidden fears and hidden magic. We see the biologist played by Portman as she crouches over the ground, painstakingly recording her observations.

The narration begins. “Area X. Day one…”

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