Friday, February 23, 2018

Shimmer, 'Annihilation,' Shimmer!

If there's something shimmering/In your neighborhood/Who you gonna call?

Annihilation had a rocky road leading to its release, and in fact, is only making it to the big screen in the U.S., Canada, and China; Netflix will be streaming it for the rest of the world. The trouble seems to have stemmed from a fairly typical clash between studio bosses and the film's director, Alex Garland, and producer, Paul Rubin. Paramount found the film too "intellectual," Garland didn't want to make changes, and Rudin had final cut. Garland and Rudin won the fight, so it almost feels like the Netflix release is a bit of a punishment.

I think the studio's complaints were unfounded. The problem with Annihilation isn't that it's too heady; it's that it's not heady enough. It shoots for a 2001: A Space Oddity level of trippiness, but never goes full throttle, leaving us with an unsatisfying mutation of action, horror, and science fiction.

Natalie Portman stars as a Lena, an ex-soldier turned Johns Hopkins biology professor who is mourning the assumed death of her husband (Oscar Isaac), a soldier who left for a mysterious mission a year ago and never returned. She learns that his mission lead him to an area of the Gulf coast that three years prior had suffered some kind of meteor hit, resulting in a mysterious growing mass of seemingly destructive energy, nicknamed "the shimmer," that several teams of soldiers have entered, never to be heard from again.

Lena, determined to find out what happened to her husband, and possibly save him, volunteers to join a team of women set to enter and study the shimmer. They include the world's most intense psychologist (Jennifer Jason Lee, odd and riveting), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny).

Annihilation's diverse, all-female cast is something to be applauded, and it gets a lot of bonus points for that, especially since it's treated like no big deal. There's some vague mention of how the previous expeditions have all been men, implying that perhaps gender may play a role in a team's success inside, but aside from that, their gender doesn't really come into play, which is refreshing.

I just wish once they were inside the shimmer, they didn't consistently do stupid things. Part of their behavior can possibly be chalked up to what the shimmer begins to do to their minds. Shortly after they arrive they lose entire days, with no memory of how they set-up camp, or eating a third of their rations (an interesting bit of head-fuckery that is abandoned too quickly). So perhaps that's why, after almost losing someone to an attack by a swamp beast, they decide it would be a good idea hop in some rowboats and float through the swamp.

As for the other things they find in the shimmer, and what's causing the phenomenon, well, that's best left for audiences to discover themselves (which is why I'm not linking to the trailer, which gives way too much away). But I will say that, visually, it includes some truly memorable and beautifully colorful floral and fauna.

The women all have their theories about what is going on, and a big part of it seems fairly obvious; it's not something a biologist needs to explain, especially when said biologist's main reaction is, "You know that's literally impossible, right?"

Ultimately, director Alex Garland's need to answer some questions while leaving others a mystery is just an exercise in frustration. I'd have been happier never really knowing what the hell is going on, instead of trying to figure out a puzzle where half of the pieces don't even seem to fit. Annihilation tries to be a visually rich acid trip that causes one to question the self, the planet, and the evolution of life, but it left me longing for a higher dose.

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