On the Film "Annihilation": "Stranger Things" Meets "Arrival" on Acid

So I’ve been seeing a slew of films lately, including The Shape of Water (much fun, including weird fish-man sex) and The Florida Project—which deserves a post of its own—as well as Gary Oldman’s magnificent work of scenery-chewing, The Darkest Hour, but since those are generally well-known by now, a few words about last night’s debut film, the scifi slash horror pic, Annihilation, which opened this weekend. Here’s a link to the New York Times review of it, fairly on-target, here. I also saw a review blurb that claimed it was “the most intelligent alien movie since Arrival,” apt enough. Essentially the storyline follows Natalie Portman into a no-man’s-land (apparently somewhere in Florida, natch) where an iridescent wall surrounds a lighthouse and swamp near which an asteroid landed, a zone that keeps expanding and might well encompass the entire planet. It’s called the Shimmer. Natalie plays Lena, a biologist/professor at Johns Hopkins, whose husband, Kane, was a member of a military team who entered the Shimmer to investigate it, from which no one returns (he’s the first, kind of). Hence the tagline: “One way in. No way out.”

Natalie enters the Shimmer with three other less-important characters, who function a bit like a trio of odd-women-out, like an unfamiliar ensign in a Star Trek episode when they beam down to an alien planet and somebody has to die to ramp up the drama. Jennifer Jason Leigh, always a favorite of mine, plays the other more-important character named Dr. Ventress, who is a psychiatrist and leader of the expedition. Once inside the Shimmer things go wrong quickly and you wonder why they don’t hightail-it out asap. At times it comes across as an unintentionally funny camping trip: On the first morning they wake up in their tents it appears they’ve already been there three to four days and have no memory of it whatsoever. (When Lena returns to the government-types who are monitoring the Shimmer, they’ve apparently been gone quite awhile (for months), and are asked “What did you eat?” I quipped to my daughter, “Snacks?”)
She doesn’t remember any of it, but the story gamely goes on to reenact this experience inside the freaky alien swamp, complete with attacks by a giant alligator (indigenous to Florida, yes) and a giant mutant grizzly bear (indigenous to British Columbia?).  Much of this part of the story seems straightforward horror, complete with bloody gross-out moments and sudden body snatchings. As the game group of five women tromp around the mutant Florida with assault rifles (which, after Parkland, has a sinister-ironic ring to it) they always seem to be “stopping for the night,” willy nilly. (When it seems like an odd camping trip, you wonder: Did they bring s’mores?) The visuals are stunning, replicating a world in which the DNA of all plants and animals appear to be merging, going through a prism, and creating hybrid/mutant plants, animals, and psychiatrists to boot.
The ending suggests Arrival (2016) if it had taken a wrong turn—more like, say, the underrated Life (2017). There’s certainly some Stranger Things vibe in the Shimmer, though without all the teen angst and silliness. My own beef with the film concerns its monochromatic tone, which contrasts to the hallucinogenic colors and images of the cinematography. Natalie Portman’s facial expressions waver and morph from frown to quizzical stare to quizzical frown. She’s fine but ultimately the emotional timbre of the film is one-note. Scifi fans will likely love this visually trippy film, and I suspect it’s destined to be popular on streaming, just for the shimmery images alone. With the paranormal vibes and gun-toting cast of five women, it’s like a somber, moody version of that Ghost Busters remake.

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