Annihilation (2018) - Film Review
If you talk about Annihilation (2018) for long enough, one thing you’ll realize is that it’s a film that constantly defies modern standards of filmmaking. Of course, that statement on its face seems like a compliment, and it is; but importantly, it also isn’t. Annihilation plays games like this all the time, where you’re impressed with the writing, but you’re also not. There are moments of incredible direction, and then moments of uncomfortable mediocrity. But this doesn’t even fully encapsulate the difficulty of Annihilation, because these problems bleed into the thematic goals of the film. So for a person like me, who’s trying to cut through the polarity the film has caused and adequately assess what’s going on, it’s hard to know how to go about doing that. When should talented filmmakers and great writers get blamed for poor audience reception?
Directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina) the audience has a right to expect a lot from the film. Garland is the brand of filmmaker and writer that is heavily focused on concept and theme over (and sometimes to the negative effect of) verisimilitude. Annihilation is a continuation of that focus. There’s a real nobility in being an artist that creates these types of films and concepts for wide theater releases. Of course, Annihilation had it’s difficulties reaching international audiences, but in the U.S. it was generally well-marketed and had a wide release. But to say that Annihilation is just another art-house leaning film that wasn’t accepted by American audiences wouldn’t really be accurate. The issue with the film isn’t that it’s so incomprehensible (it sort of is) or that it’s theme isn’t interesting (it’s incredibly interesting and worthwhile) but that it’s dramatic moments either fail to communicate clear ideas, they misfire, or are poorly written/directed.
The film stars Natalie Portman alongside a cast of female actors (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez) and we follow them as they deal with their own sanity and grip on reality while trying to find the source of, “the Shimmer” an exponentially expanding alien field. Each one of them has been chosen because of the failures of past expeditions that were led by conventionally masculine military members. The acting across the board here is exceptional. The difficulty in communicating the script to screen shouldn’t be underestimated here. The ideas are complex and can sound convoluted, but each person speaks as an authority. And generally speaking, I buy it, with some crucial exceptions.
Because this is a spoiler-free review, it’s hard to really dive into these specific moments in the ways that I would like. But this review would be missing something if I didn’t express that these failures of this film are truly in it’s ambitious goals and not in the individual performance of any one crew member.
In a dramatic moment, the word (and of course, the title) "Annihilation" is used. Words like, “Annihilation” conjure up melodramatic ideas in our heads, but it’s important to remember that the word has a more scientific definition than what’s in our heads. When we hear, “Annihilation” we think, “complete destruction or obliteration.” I personally imagine samurai yelling this running into battle. It's a dramatic word, and it evokes certain thoughts in us. But that's not what is meant when they say, "Annihilation." In the context of the film it means, “the conversion of matter into energy, especially the mutual conversion of a particle and an antiparticle into electromagnetic radiation.” So when a character says, “annihilation” we’re not thinking in this context—we immediately think, “okay that’s a bit dramatic.”
This is a good example of why it’s really hard to judge Annihilation on its face, because it’s full of concepts that seem convenient, simple, or melodramatic, but none of them individually are half-cocked. They’re deep explorations of what it means to be human. But even that phrase, “what it means to be human” could be misconstrued because we’re talking about that in context of the animal kingdom, and Speciation. When you start watching Annihilation through this carefully understanding lens, you realize the brilliance of these individual moments-- But that brilliance is not necessarily in the filmmaking. It’s in the conceptual minds behind the film. That’s an incredibly important distinction.
Each of these moments may be hugely important, and in my opinion they are and are so worth your time, but when you’re judging their success, it’s hard to say that Annihilation is as successful as it could be as a film. Incredible, goosebump-inducing moments get disregarded in the minds of the audience if not portrayed properly. If the moments are indeed important and have depth, is it the failure of the filmmakers or the audience. In this case, despite my love for Garland’s contributions to film, I can’t pin it all on the audience. This makes Annihilation an awe-inspiring, slowly blooming orchid for film lovers, but a difficult, frustrating film for those who prefer a more accessible brand of science fiction.
- First Impression: 70
- Lasting Impression: 85
- Coherence: 55
- Technical Excellence: 90
Bret Hoy is the creator and co-editor of Monolith Medium, an award winning filmmaker, and writer.