Dir. Alex Garland
One of those inexplicably bland tasting meals cooked from the same key ingredients that have excited, nourished, and comforted us many times in the past, that we add more and more salt to hoping that it will ‘bring out the flavours that are already there’, but it just shrinks and gets saltier. Everything that is said about Annihilation is indeed there from the environmental dis/un/ease to the fracturing of time and self, but Garland cannot make any of it matter. He is the missing taste receptor, the plant scrambling what should be a clear signal, the director of moodboards who doesn’t care about composing a shot much less how to get to the next one. His moodboards, always on hand, are filled with images of the greats of show, don’t tell and less is more, but Garland doesn’t have the patience much less skill to pull off anything even resembling these reference-points.
Expository dialogue, while it should be avoided, is not an inherently bad thing, but Garland’s feels like a series of reflections for the director himself lest he forget what he’s doing. Oh, that’s right, self-destructing cells and mutated growth, oh yes, ‘broken’ and self-destructing people- the characters say these things out loud and it is as though Garland is hitting ctrl+s on his screenplay that doubles as a treatment. The cast can act with or without words, making this all stand out more than if they were newcomers, and where a better director would suggest that there is more to the picture (think Mann’s fleeting characterisation, Malick layering dialogue over trees or water), Garland simply frames the actors reading their lines front-on and hopes that their experience acting is enough. This must have been an incredibly frustrating experience for veterans such as Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and one can sense in them the discomfort of Garland’s inability to direct actors as well as suffocating sense of control over his product. This worked in Ex Machina where Isaac went surly Zuck and Gleeson conveniently defaulted to nice-guy, but the broadness of the performances in Annihilation are awkward instead of tidily didactic. They’re defined by their brokenness (again told rather than shown to us, in a visual medium!) but this has nothing to do with how they behave, or critically, how the film’s narrative/thematic horrors manifest.
It is bizarre that Annihilation shoots for psychological drama when we’re given no insight into the psychologies of the characters. This of course is excluding Portman’s Lena who is given the bare minimum in flashbacks, and this turns out to be the film’s biggest missed opportunity. If everyone else is actually fodder, fine, get it over and done with early- they self-destruct so abruptly and with so little foreshadowing that if the film had been three hours long we can still assume that Garland would have mishandled these moments. But the (also abrupt and mishandled) final act transitions into a horror of divorce and this is where it begins to shine. Suddenly everything the film has to say about identity not only lands but becomes affecting- acknowledging one’s past mistakes as the reason for one’s current situation, deciding not to be defined by said mistakes however things are stacked, wondering where that leaves our perception of self given that we’ve hated ourselves for so long, journeying into the familiar (but now that we’re alone and fragmented) finding it mutated and hostile, committing to a rebirth but finding the same old faces just different. Like gravity we return to the first things we fell in love with, so the best we can do is hope that we learned from the past and can do better this time.
Of course Garland rushes through this and delivers it with a series of twists, tacky title cards, and blunt exposition framed within a frame of exposition- Lena tells her story in the present about a group of female scientists who were chosen because they were not military guys but who just shot stuff any way and who readily narrated in the past the story as it happened for them. I am all for replicant/bootleg versions of better films, and yeah, Annihilation is fun but in its artless disregard of cinematic languages, incredibly dangerous. It cares about what but not how with its visuals making it at least more considered than I don’t know a sitcom. It goes by lightly by virtue of sticking firmly to the middle of the road and it ends as quickly as it started. It mistakes seriousness for intelligence, and it has a premise with no interest in how to deliver on any of its ideas. It is strange that it ever had a theatrical release, because it is not cinema, it is Netflix.