“The mutations were subtle at first”

Entering “The Shimmer”


Some thoughts on Alex Garland’s horror sci-fi movie of 2018: Annihilation

I have got a backlog of Letterboxd reviews of varying depth and quality that I haven’t shared anywhere else. The last one I did, below, is of Alex Garland’s horror sci-fi movie of 2018: Annihilation.

Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) raised an interesting problem for me: how much does one want to read up about a film before watching it? In this case I only had some very vague memories from the publicity around the time of its release (on streaming platforms) of it being touted as intelligent and ambitious sci-fi. There was, however, a moment about a third of the way into the film which left my expectations reeling, and not in a good way, and forced a major reajustment in the my approach to the film. I am talking of course about an attack by a mutant crocodile which struck me as an unwelcomely prosaic change of pace (see below):

I am still not convinced the scene was a particularly well done but thankfully I persisted and did not switch off (mentally or literally), which was very nearly the case. This is not the only moment of its kind in the movie, but it is important to stress that Annihilation is horror sci-fi in the mould of The Thing (particulalrly the 1982 John Carpenter version, to which it owes a thematic debt) or Event Horizon (1997). If you go into this as I did expecting something akin in atmosphere and theme to Solaris then you might find yourself disappointed: although the influence of Tarkovski’s movie is very much present.

There is an argument to be made that Garland should have doubled down on the (for lack of a better word) existential elements of the plot and made the horror of a more psychological, rather than visceral kind. The mutant crocodile not withstanding, the film does serve up some genuinely frightening all-out horror, not least a more palpably monstrous mutant bear! Part of the problem might be the varying quality of the effects: sometimes the CGI looks a tad cheap, at which point my suspension of disbelief always goes out of the window.

Elsewhere the effects are more tangible and even imaginatively psychedelic, especially towards the end when the characters reach the lighthouse at the centre of the strange alien presence being investigated. Parts of these latter sequences remind me of Jonathan Glazer’s (superior) Under the Skin (2013), which transcends in part due to the more impressionistic and less CGI-dependent nature of its special effects. Clip below (spolier alert):

I don’t believe we can dismiss Annihilation (or any other movie) purely on the basis that it reminds us of other, earlier movies. There is no such thing as the Original Text; all narratives are borrowings and reformulations of what has gone before. The question is more whether a given movie is more than a sum of its parts. In addition to the aforementioned movies we might add Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009) – itself an ambitious hybrid of borrowings from 2001 and Solaris – echoed in Annihilation through the theme of doubling. This gothic dimension – quite pronounced in Annihilation’s early scenes, when Lena’s (Natalie Portman’s) missing husband unexpectedly returns from combat – is among the film’s strongest, recalling David Cronenberg and, to a lesser extent, some David Lynch (notably the doubling effects of the Black Lodge in the original Twin Peaks finale).

I don’t think it quite worked as well as Garland’s directorial debut Ex-Machina (2014) which I plan to revisit soon. It also suffers from some slightly dodgy acting and thinly drawn side characters. Lena heads into “The Shimmer” with a five-strong team of machine-gun toting female scientists but, apart from Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress, few of these characters really make it off the drawing board. Nevertheless it is an engaging, disturbing and occasionally thought-provoking movie.

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