' ' Cinema Romantico: Annihilation

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


As “Annihilation” opens, a meteor streaks through the sky and tears through a Florida lighthouse, leaving in its wake some sort of nebulous extra-terrestrial force field called The Shimmer that is threatening to gradually overrun Earth. Several military units have, we learn, ventured through this unexplainable phenomenon in the hopes of finding answers, never to return. No one, that is, except Kane (Oscar Isaac), who seeks out his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), an army vet cum biologist who long ago assumed her spouse was dead. If we have only just met him, we nevertheless know he’s not right, and maybe not who he says he is, on account of Isaac’s vacant-eyed dissonance. That or the blood he soon coughs up, which finds him transplanted to a military hospital where Lena is soon answering questions to Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Before long, Lena volunteers to venture into the Shimmer along with Dr. Ventress and three other heavily armed women. If it suggests a sort of scientific spin on “Aliens’”, writer/director Alex Garland, who adapted his screenplay from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel I have not read, is aiming for something more cerebral, a la James Ward Byrkit’s “Coherence.” The latter, however, forged a sense of twisted self-discovery, while “Annihilation” ultimately still feels like it’s hiding something.

The Shimmer itself is reminiscent of rainbow plasma seemingly suspended in the air, though it is generally seen from afar and rarely lingered over, just as likely to be glimpsed on a computer monitor as by the characters’ naked eyes. It’s not that Garland’s effects aren’t strong but that he often forgoes a sense of wonder, making the eventual passing of the characters through the Shimmer a footnote rather than a moment. And while much of what they do encounter upon entry into the shimmery zone is impressively, even gorgeously rendered, “Annihilation”, perhaps in service to the title, is more concerned with dread and shock, though even that skews oddly conventional given the un-conventional setting, as Garland often writes himself into corners and then quickly fashions contrived means to get himself out. At the same time, disorientation supposedly overcomes these women the further they hike, though that disorientation is rarely felt, mostly just commented upon, like Ventress explicating: “We’re disintegrating.” Are they? You sure wouldn’t know it unless she said it.

They are disintegrating by way of sort of being subsumed, along with the DNA of everything else in this mystical zone, whatever this mystical zone might be. And there is a certain sense of mysticism, which the group’s physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) latches onto, though her fate comes across perfunctory as opposed to lyrical, never part of the primary point for which “Annihilation” seems to be striving. The same goes for Ventress, who I sometimes wished was the main character. When Garland proffers a point-of-view shot through an albino alligator’s mouth this is theoretically so we can see how the animal has, on account of the Shimmer, been re-made with shark’s teeth, though that is less gripping than Leigh’s stoicism in the back of the frame.

Indeed, if Leigh cannot manage to evince her character’s actual physical disintegration (who could? Daniel Day-Lewis? Vincent D’Onofrio in “Men in Black”?), she still conveys a moving sense of fatalism. Upon entry into the Shimmer, when the group discovers its communications don’t work, Ventress remarks that they could not really have expected their coms to work, a line Leigh recites with a placidity that is darkly comic. Eventually we learn Ventress has cancer, which is why she has volunteered for what amounts to a suicide mission in the first place, though the film is never interested in really following up that detail and Leigh is essentially operating on a plain apart from some mere story point anyway. She is like a wearier Cliff Curtis in “Sunshine”, as if she has already looked past the pragmatic end game in the hopes of uncovering the ineffable.

Lena, on the other hand, has a more definable goal in trying to uncover what happened to her husband, an investigation which theoretically should open a window to her soul. Her romantic connection, however, is played up more for eventual tension with the group in the midst of their quest while never opening up the intended window to her soul. Flashbacks to Lena and Kane’s past remain coldly remote and oddly vague, never getting to who Lena is, or who she thinks she is, and which Portman, unlike Leigh, cannot manage to fill out through her performance. As such, the big concluding set piece bringing the idea of looking in the mirror to life, while effective in and of itself, weirdly balletic and raised to a piercing, thrilling aesthetic pitch, fails to fully come off without the proper emotional build-up. What’s worse, this whole sequence is distressingly re-calibrated by the film’s final shots, not to be revealed, into something less spiritually sinister than akin to a two-person shell game. “Annihilation’s” potential mindfuck, in other words, metamorphoses into a mere magician’s trick.

I have been to the center of the Shimmer, friends; it’s just a big bunch of hot air.

No comments: