The Screening Room Reviews: Annihilation

With a limited theatrical release in the U.S., Canada, and China and a deal with Netflix to distribute in 17 other international territories, Alex Garland’s adaptation of the 2014 novel “Annihilation” didn’t exactly ‘annihilate’ the box office. With an estimated budget of over $50 million and box office sales totaling $42 million, some might even consider it a financial flop. Does this also mean it’s a flop for the sci-fi genre?

“Annihilation” is the tale of 5 female scientists sent to investigate a strange area known as ‘The Shimmer’ somewhere on the coast of the U.S. (possibly Florida). Within ‘The Shimmer’ the team faces wondrous and horrifying genetic anomalies from both without and within as they combat not only the environment, but their own dark pasts.

The film re-imagining of the novel is as Alex Garland puts it “like a dream of the book.” The over-arching plot of a small area off an unidentified coastal region where weird things happen being investigated by a group of female scientists is where the similarities end. “Annihilation” is anything but a faithful adaptation, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Garland and the studio (Paramount) allegedly argued extensively over his decision regarding how the film ends. Ultimately Garland won the argument, leading to the very limited theatrical release in the U.S. with Paramount stating that the film’s end would be too complex for the general audience to understand. Whether or not Paramount made the right call remains to be seen, the Screening Room crew weighs in…

Writing

“It’s good science writing” says co-host Foxx Jackson “but is it good science fiction?”

“This film has been compared to the works of H.P. Lovecraft in that it deals with an entity or force humanity is incapable of rationalizing, but when you try to craft a narrative around something we can’t understand in world that is very grounded in real science, it feels a little gimmicky to me. Less would have been more as far as using actual science in Annihilation, don’t give me a rundown of what Hox genes are if it’s ultimately irrelevant, focus on the moving the plot forward, develop some characters. I take a few issues with the pacing of the film, but ultimately this isn’t a huge issue. This movie is less of a narrative journey and more of an abstract piece of art revolving around some specific themes.”

DJ TV offers a few contrasting thoughts. “It’s a mystery box” he remarks “you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

“I think open-ended stuff works best in movies. With a book you spend days reading it and expect at least a little payoff, with a movie it leaves you with something to think about. It’s a mind trick, that’s the whole point of the movie, it’s indescribable. We know what is happening, but we don’t know why or how. I think that makes it interesting. This is one the few good Lovecraftian films I’ve seen in a long time.”

“There’s this type of narration that pulls you out of ‘The Shimmer’ part of the story, which is where this movie works best.” Mad Mike states.

“I really like the tension in this movie, the weird stuff that goes on, and I really wanted more of that. Mostly, this film suffers from poor editing and uneven tone. I really hate the style of narration they choose that takes you out of [The Shimmer], which is the strongest points of the film. This movie probably warrants a second watch. The whole time I was waiting for the cool stuff that happens in the book, but it never comes. You need to watch this movie without trying to compare it to the book. [Annihilation] is deep sci-fi, it becomes pretty high sci-fi by the end after a lot of building.”

Audio and Visuals

“I like [the music], it’s not what I was expecting, but it really worked” offers DJ TV “It’s a cool juxtaposition, nothing else in this movie makes sense, why should the music?” DJ TV is referring to Annihilation’s use of acoustic guitar focused folk music throughout the film.

“The folk music isn’t what you expect from most sci-fi, it’s about contrast. The landscapes in ‘The Shimmer’ are so vibrant, like they put each scene into photo editing software and cranked up the vibrance of the colors to the max. The characters on the other hand are pretty dull in appearance, and that makes them stand out against the beautiful background. It seems like the human characters don’t belong, like a cancer on the landscapes. The differences make you nervous, like the area looks beautiful, but something isn’t quite right.”

Mad Mike doesn’t necessarily agree. “I wasn’t a big fan of [the folk music]” he says “the music at the end of the movie was so unnerving, it was awesome, that’s what I needed.” **Minor Spoiler Ahead**

Minor Spoiler
As the film progress the music shifts from “folky” acoustic instrumental to abstract synthetic noise with a heavy bass emphasis.

“One second the characters are witnessing something horrible and there’s no music, and the next its an acoustic guitar playing a folk tune. I don’t necessarily want something like Nolan-esque synths, but something that keeps the tension up would have been nice.”

“This movie looks really nice” asserts Foxx “It’s all about the duality of nature.”

“One moment your watching something horrible unfold, the next moment it’s chill folk music. Terrifying, beautiful, terrifying, beautiful; Garland has stated he really wanted to show both sides of nature and I think he nailed this movie in that regard. DJ TV makes a great point about the scientists standing out against the landscape. Their drab military outfits do exactly the opposite of camouflage them within ‘The Shimmer.’ The abandoned settlements and buildings are haunting and very well done. Not only is the photography great, but the set design is spectacular.” **Major Spoilers Ahead**

Major Spoiler
“Annihilation” also sports one of the most terrifying and best designed monsters I have seen in a long time. It looks and sounds like the embodiment of a biologist’s nightmare.

Themes

**Major Spoilers. Enter at Your Own Peril.**

Major Spoiler
“This a film 100% about self-destruction” says Foxx Jackson “it’s VERY heavy-handed. ‘Self-destruction is coded in our genetics, there’s lots of different ways to self-destruct, you can’t escape it’. We get it…”

“Garland really drives this point home, perhaps a little too hard for me. Everything about this movie, the narration style and the departure from the source material seems to be centered around making sure you know that this a movie about self-destruction. Initially I felt that I needed to watch this one again and look for hidden messages and more background story, but I think all I’d find is more self-destruction references. You could list pages and pages of all the little things Garland does to convey this. As I mentioned early, this is more of an abstract work of art centered around conveying a singular theme and not necessarily a narrative journey”

“Basically ‘The Shimmer’ and the alien in it are cancer” adds Mad Mike “it’s a tumor that essentially destroys the regular laws of nature and makes something different.”

“Some of the narrative gets put to the side in order to further get the point across. It’s not the worst ever, but there is some convenient story-telling that seems to only be there to make sure the self-destruction theme gets across. ‘Annihilation’ is very heavy handed in its main theme. Although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does seem to take away from other aspects of the film.”

“It’s not a very heavy narrative” notes DJ TV “we go into [‘the Shimmer’] and that’s the whole journey. But that’s okay.”

“Sure, the people who go on the mission are beaten and broken down. But, who’s to say it’s not about creation. Sometimes you have to destroy in order to create something new.”

The Verdict

“Annihilation’s” narration style may be jarring or annoying to some, but other viewers may find that it adds to the suspense or mystery. While certainly not a masterwork of character development and narrative, Annihilation offers an overall solid story that is both engaging and thought-provoking. It’s hard to deny that this film is full of tense moments and several haunting encounters. The film generally looks excellent, particularly in its use of color and set design. Some may not find the choice in music appealing throughout the film, though others may find it to be an interesting contrast. “Annihilation” may come on a little strong with it’s over-arching themes and at times chooses to pursue these themes rather than the immediate narrative situation. However, some viewers might find that this only adds to the plot and makes it more engaging.

The Screening Room rates films on a scale of: burn it, pass, watch it, buy it.

Mad Mike rates “Annihilation” Buy It, noting however, that it may be a niche film and may not appeal to people who aren’t already fans of sci-fi films in general. Mad Mike suggests that “Annihilation” is a film that needs several viewing in order to fully appreciate or grasp it’s complex and at times bizarre plot.

Foxx Jackson rates “Annihilation” Buy It, citing its overall impressive sci-fi writing and creature design, but pointing out its occasionally sloppy writing and lack of finesse in character development.

DJ TV rates “Annihilation” Buy It, in particular noting that people who enjoy Lovecraftian plots and ‘cosmic weirdness’ will probably enjoy this film.

Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” is Screening Room Certified as:

Buy It

Tune in next week for the Lovecraftian Horror Series Episode 2 “The Whisperer in the Darkness”

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