It’s always a tall order when a movie sets out to dazzle you. When it devotes its story and its dialogue to people being astounded by what they (and in turn, the viewer) are seeing. When it pays off, you can get immortal moments, like the first dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but when it doesn’t work, you get the Green Lantern suit or just about all of the Transformerseses. Maybe you’ll even get an Avatar, which wowed audiences until…the movie ended and it wasn’t in front of their eyes anymore, and there wasn’t anything else in the movie keeping it around.
Annihilation is betting the farm on dazzling you: There are several different points in the movie where the characters find discarded video cameras like they’re water in the desert: The proof of what they’ve seen, the seeing that is believing, is treated with a holy reverence. The movie has a framing device of a whole crowd of people getting the events of the movie related to them, with most of their interjections being “Really? You actually saw something that weird and astounding?” And of course, you’ve probably seen that picture of a soap bubble the size of the city, which is a very clever thing to have as your big marquee image, since it’s not only memorable and strange, but suggests there’s even more memorable and stranger stuff on the inside of the bubble. Setting your expectations sky-high for what you’ll see is the name of the game.
I’m happy to report that the implication pays off: Annihilation is an astounding piece of visual art, released along the vector of a damn good movie. Alex Garland, director of Ex Machina and writer of everything from Dredd to 28 Days Later to the novel that was adapted into Leo DiCaprio’s The Beach (No, really – how’s that for dazzling?) has found his niche, making personal dramas that expand and deliver on the heady, exciting promises of grand old sci-fi formulas.
What’s his secret? He takes it slow.
So many movies put the world in danger, to raise the stakes as high as they’ll go, but Garland’s Sunshine brought the twist that the movie starts with the world’s endangerment being common knowledge. For years before the story starts, Garland has the sword of Damocles loom over the characters for the entire length of the movie. I could name a dozen stories that begin “An eccentric inventor invites a close friend over, to demonstrate a new revolutionary invention he 1 just completed”, but Ex Machina gives an underlying social and emotional perspective to those moving parts of “eccentric inventor” and “close friend” and even “revolutionary invention”, because everything about their interaction is spaced out so meticulously.
Annihilation, based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanDerMeer 2, gives a similarly languorously-paced consideration to a trope seen everywhere from Lovecraft’s “The Color Out Of Space” to Spider-Man 3: A meteorite crashes on Earth and brings weird space stuff along with it. We find out right away that this is the case, but it takes a good long while before we even arrive at the big soap bubble that’s sprung up around the meteorite’s crash site, let alone when we go inside.
We spend the intervening time with Natalie Portman, a microbiologist who’s been in a rut ever since her active-duty husband was deployed under mysterious circumstances months ago – an understandable reason for sadness even before you find out said husband was Oscar Isaac. It turns out, see, that Isaac was one of the first people sent inside Area X, as the meteorite’s surroundings are known, to investigate, and when Portman finds that out, she’s able to get a position on the science team sent in to investigate what happened to those people, as well as what’s going on with that weird space stuff in general.
The science team is all-female, and it’s refreshing that the movie doesn’t think it has to justify this, other than noting how each member would need a damn good reason to enter an unknowable weirdness zone from whence nothing has returned. These reasons get parcelled out over the course of the movie3, so it’s hard for me to talk about the rest of the characters other than to note that Tessa Thompson gives maybe her most subtle performance yet as “the smart one” among a whole squad of smart ones, and Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez walks a path in the middle ground between Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein in Aliens.
The movie has its flaws – the characters’ backstories have some weird inconsistencies to them, and there’s a subplot about Portman’s life back in the real world that never seems to arrive anywhere. Ultimately, the characters and plot are primarily there to walk us through the setting; to gawk at the fantastical wildlife and impossible mutations that have sprung up since the meteorite hit, to explain just enough of the fictional science behind what’s going on that we’ll be able to fill in the gaps when they get too unstable to keep it up, to have that instability drive our own, as the weird things we see get even more haunting for their familiarity.
Obviously I won’t even describe exactly what they find there – that’s the framing device’s job – but my favorite trick the movie pulls is how every aspect of the placid, colorful visual style ends up getting explained and justified in the text of the movie. The prismatic undulations of “The Shimmer” surrounding Area X, the sheer variety of color, the eerie stillness of it all – everything ends up feeding into the nature of what lies at the center of Area X, and what it means. To me, rapturous as the movie looks, those touches are what really dazzle.