I recently saw Annihilation and liked it. I’m just not sure why. Aesthetically, it’s wild and engrossing. As he demonstrated in Ex Machina, Alex Garland is great at creating moods. Annihilation grabs you by your sense of unease and never lets you go. One of the chief sources of unease is that you’re never quite sure what the hell is going on. I have a high tolerance for such things. Being able to guess what’s around every corner doesn’t necessarily ruin every movie — if it did I wouldn’t be able to enjoy most superhero movies. I have less tolerance for movies that rely on dreams or dreamy techniques, and Annihilation skirts the line on the latter almost perpetually.
As Ross Douthat and others have noted, the movie is very female, not just because the lead (Natalie Portman) and nearly all the supporting cast are women. The themes themselves are female in a sense. The running motif is bodily transformation or physical disorder, which is understandably more of a phenomenon for the half of our species that can grow human beings inside them. That part was very interesting either conceptually or visually.
But I have, I suppose, some toxically male problems with the text not the subtext (spoilers ahead). The premise of the movie is that an asteroid brought an alien life or force or thingamabob crashing into a lighthouse. An ever-growing bubble — called the Shimmer — emanates from it. As it grows it plays havoc on the DNA of everything within its zone of weirdness. The government quarantines this Area X to study it and hopefully thwart its march on our terran reality. It sends expeditions of male soldiers to investigate, but no one returns alive or even reports back — until, it seems, Lena’s (Natalie Portman’s) husband mysteriously shows up a year after he went in. Lena, an army vet and a biologist at Johns Hopkins ends up volunteering to join an all-female group of scientists to go where only men went before.
So far, so good. There’s no heavy-handed feminist speechifying. They’re going in because they’re scientists not a horror-sci-fi version of Lady Ghostbusters. There’s a hint that maybe women can handle the shimmer better than the boys, but psychologically and physically maybe that’s true.
But here’s the thing. This unknown, unstoppably growing, ball of alien radiation seems kinda dangerous. As my daughter put it, “Shouldn’t they be wearing hazmat or astronaut suits?”
My answer: Yes. Yes they should. Did it really never occur to anyone that such basic precautions might have been warranted? (This is a particularly odd oversight given that it’s only when they interview Portman upon her return, that they put on hazmat suits.) Similarly, no one ever says, “Hey, let’s collect a few samples — of plants, bugs, soil, whatever — from just inside the shimmer and take it back to study it.” No baby steps or overly cautious scientific protocols are going to stop them! They have to hike all the way to the lighthouse.
At one point the lady explorers find an old building complex where a previous team had bunked for the night. They find a memory card left behind addressed to whoever follows them. They play it on a video recorder and see a scary scene in which the men cut open the belly of one of their comrades to reveal terrifying moving stuff inside the man’s body. These scientists (and one medic) all in effect yell, “ewww gross” and refuse to watch anymore. What if, two seconds, after the vivisection one of the soldiers offered some insight? Or a warning (“Watch out for the bear!”). It doesn’t matter, this team of women found it just too icky.
There are a few other things like this that drove me crazy about the movie. I understand that Garland was going for mood over literalism, but a little more literalism would have made the mood so much more compelling. I love Arrival — which also featured a strong female lead — precisely because Denis Villeneuve managed to balance the mood and the literalism. In Annihilation the mood — visual and otherwise — swamps everything and left me having to enjoy it solely on those dreamy terms.
Editor’s Note: This post originally mis-identified the director of Arrival. It’s been corrected.