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Streaming: Revisiting "Annihilation"

by Chris Feil

Alex Garland’s sci-fi psychosis film Annihilation is exhausting on several levels and in the best way, as if it was destined to be more beloved once reassessed. Its imposing, deliberate unhinging of time and reality is not exactly built for a complacent viewers. It’s also a brilliantly assembled metaphor for depression in dark times...

This past winter the film left mainstream audiences scratching their heads as the film’s ardent critical fans sang its praises. And then it quickly faded away. Paramount didn’t quite know how to handle such tricky material, as witnessed by the film’s sale to Netflix for international release. Whether you missed it in theatres or could use a second visit for reinterpretation, it would be shameful for audiences to forget the film so quickly.

Natalie Portman’s academic biologist enters the film already fraught: her husband returns after a mysterious departure a shell of himself, having participated in a top secret mission into topographical anomaly Area X. His likely death stirs in her both questions of his mission and an unspoken simmering guilt, sending her on her own fateful mission into the unknown of Area X’s hellmouth, the Shimmer. Along for the mission are four other female scientists with their own dark histories yet to be discovered.



Because none of the many teams that have wandered into the Shimmer have returned, you could safely call this a suicide mission. Garland sparks to this notion as the launchpad for his point of view, turning Portman and her crew’s journey into the abyss as a representation for flailing mental health. Fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s source novel will find a film that follows the book only by crucial narrative fenceposts. Garland has spoken that his screenplay was written after a single pass at the novel (and none of its sequels) and crafted based on what he remembered of it and how it made him feel.

Yet in expanding VanderMeer’s bare bones characters, they (and the film) become defined by their unique pains of the soul. The film may at first present an enigmatic nature, but Garland infuses tonal textures that feel all too recognizable to those of us who have battled poor mental health. The resulting film is expressionistic and terrifying, like a nightmare birthed from a restless depressive night. Whether we wake up on the other side of it is up to viewer interpretation, but when we do we’re an undeniably altered version of ourselves.

Much as we and Portman want to cling to the tangible and the logical, the Shimmer increasingly makes that impossible. By turns, its invasive grip on the body and the soul is met with hubris, rage, and willing acceptance - each member of the crew (especially with stellar work from Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson occupying opposite ends of a mental spectrum) is on their own path of self-destruction. The Shimmer’s transmorphing, sometimes intoxicating mental poison gets its hands in everything, explicitly using past traumas on these women until they collapse. They are reaching for flame because part of them wants to be burned.

The film is of a strange piece with other recent films projecting our contemporary melancholias both big and large on the screen, displaying our minds as out of place and out of time. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was a scream into the void where the void laughed back; here, the void hardly blinks. Like Tully, Annihilation presents a depressive episode as an out of body experience, one that dissociates ourselves from our physical reality and extrapolates an imagined one. What makes Annihilation unique is how its mystifying narrative places us into the physiology of depression and anxiety, one moment implacable and easily defined, the next it slips through your fingers.

In that regard, Garland makes us understand a punishing headspace through Annihilation’s fantastical, prismatic allegory - no small feat, indeed.

Grade: A-

Annihilation is now streaming on iTunes and Amazon Prime!

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Reader Comments (7)

This was a weird one but I enjoyed it although would have a hard time recommending it. Reminded me heavily of Sunshine in a good way (directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland)

May 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterHuh

My favorite movie of the year so far. I loved this one.

May 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJJM

I really wish I saw what many others did. I thought it was bad, especially the acting*, dialogue, and framing device... and all leading up to what is essentially a glorified screen saver.

*JJL was good, maybe? Though I think I just like her and she was interesting enough.

May 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

I loved it. It has absolutely stayed with me.

Annihilation, Ex Machina, Carol, Her, Arrival, Under the Skin, Birth <- movies that just stay with you, movies that you think about, long after you've left the theatre.

May 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

Chris, you should really proofread your articles before posting. This one is rife with errors, especially in the first half.

May 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Patch

Anthony Patch - even several proofreads/revisions/drafts can yield a typo ;)

May 22, 2018 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

I did not find the film as profound as you did- just a rehash of may other films specially the " The Thing"

May 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

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