Annihilation (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
19Mar/180

Annihilation (2018)

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Lena goes about her routine, teaching classes while rejecting the advances of a fellow professor and trying to move forward with her life.  When her long absent husband, Kane, returns to their home she is left with questions to match her elation.  Soon, she'll become intertwined with the investigation that left Kane a shell of who he was, and enters a mysterious zone where her worst fears are given life.  Alex Garland wrote the screenplay for and directs Annihilation, which stars Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny.

Depression is the greatest human paradox.  It stains as it drive bits of itself further out, slowly tainting every facet of your life.  But it continues pulling itself apart, reaching toward who knows what, and will not be satiated until everything in existence feels its touch to begin its own inexorable journey toward oblivion.  Up into space, into each other, into the fragrances and sights that give life meaning.  The pain comes not in knowing that you're facing the total annihilation of yourself, but the pieces that you thought gave meaning to others unfortunate enough to know you will eventually drag them down to your pain.

There have been successful expressions of depression in science-fiction, most notably the traumatic healing of Upstream Color and the egoist's self-destructive hope all will feel how you suffer in Melancholia. I can't think of another film that visualizes the paradox of depression as perfectly as Annihilation.  Lena (Natalie Portman) sees "the shimmer", an ever-expanding expanse bordered with hypnotic colored oils merging and pulling apart as it stretches off into the air.  It exists with clear boundaries, but its expanse seems to have no limit.  The colors do not reflect on Lena's face, instead brightening her features with an unnatural strength that recalls the lighting of daytime soap operas.  Inside the shimmer awaits not the varied texture of human melodrama, just a harsh spotlight on yourself, and no one is prepared for what that might bring.

The colors of "the shimmer" find no home on the characters' faces, instead exposing their frail humanity that will be brought out inside its borders.

Therein lay the horror of Annihilation - the threat of being clearly seen.  I managed to keep my depression under wraps to varying degrees of success for almost two decades before my two options were to break everything in sight or pound the ground while crying uncontrollably.  Anya (Gina Rodriguez) has a system of explaining what happens in the shimmer that resonates with the worst parts of me.  She figures either everyone who went before them went insane or were killed by some unseen creature.  It's orderly, provides an easy scapegoat reason to escape before succumbing to the fear, and avoids answering the most troubling questions about just what it is they're running from.

This is something writer / director Alex Garland frames brilliantly, eschewing the journalistic entries of the novel Annihilation is based on to highlight the useless nature of men and their need for explanation.  Garland instead frames Annihilation as an interrogation, forcing Lena to provide answers to a scientist named Lomax (Benedict Wong) who responds to her answers with more questions.  At one point he feebly asks, "Was it carbon-based?" as if Lena's encounter with a once cloudy, then liquid, finally human-shaped alien creature can be brought to natural order with impromptu chemical sampling.  So long as this experience can be framed in easy scientific categories Lomax and his peers have no need to wonder just what this being would reflect back at them.

I wanted to focus on the women primarily, so Oscar Isaac's work isn't in the body of my text. But the way his accent shifts, finally going full southern in his end, reminds me of how I had to hide myself when my southern voice leaked out in new environments.

I've struggled to explain my depression to other men, mostly because I receive milquetoast advice or pat reassurances so that they don't have to confront the thing inside me that may fester inside them.  Not once have I needed to give more than a one sentence answer to women when discussing mental health, what triggered our depression for the day, or why neither one of us could get out of bed.  I'm sure there are men who wouldn't ask questions or give advice just as I'm sure there are women who would pry and offer empty platitudes.  That's not my experience, and Annihilation brings the fear of being seen in my depression so directly to the screen that I'm struggling to make sense of it with these words.

Cass (Tuva Novotny) grounds the team with surprising harmony and grace before she's violently ripped away.  After Anya loses her cool, embracing the self-destructive answer to what they're running away from, we hear Cass' screams of "Help me."  Cass is dead, but this predatory skeletal bear has absorbed her last moments of pain and as it growls the "Help me" grows louder.  I suffered in silence as long as I could because of this fear, that the part of me desperately needing help would only be seen as a monster crying out for pain while threatening to destroy anyone who dared answer.  Anya responds passionately and rushes to Cass' aid because that might mean Cass found an answer to break Anya out of her binary response to the unknown.  Instead she finds a representation of one of my biggest fears, that my depression would find ways to hurt others instead of keeping it inside myself.

One big fear about depression isn't so much that I'd drag myself down, but that I'd find a way to drag others down with me. This is painfully realized with this creature's cries of, "Help me" along with its snarls.

The cast is so good that any praise I have feels meager compared to the experience of watching them.  Portman's pained reservations as Lena recall her earlier work in Jackie, another film where the central woman had a role to play with men insisting on certain responses.  Jennifer Jason Leigh shows a kind of reserved intensity that Tarantino should have studied up on before having her beaten relentlessly in The Hateful Eight.  Rodriguez's role fascinates me the most, taking parts of James Cameron's obsession with badass military women and twisting the particulars into painful human addictions and needs.  But it's Tessa Thompson who spoke most to my pain, ending her role with the kind of grace her character's background in physics would surely appreciate, and in her last moment brings to life the horrific beauty of one of the most enduring memes about physicists and death.

I did not enjoy Ex Machina, Garland's previous feature, yet I had more to say about that film than films I love.  There are no tropes or archetypes at play in Annihilation, just the distorted space for Portman and the rest of the cast to deal with their deepest fears staring back at them.  Annihilation shows Garland free in the imagination of the mind in opposition to Ex Machina's rigidly structured visuals.  The alien is a feat of old and new science-fiction visuals, combining ferrofluid's potential for calm and vicious edges with the image of small magnetized orbs collecting organically into an approximation of human form.  Then there's the constant horror of returning to birth, canals leading into darkness or smoke feeding into itself with a gaping hole waiting for some essence to bring it to life.

The men, protected and useless, prod Lena for answers to questions that have to be felt through and cannot be explained with easy scientific answers.

In the stillness of waiting comes the music by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.  One running theme accompanying the explorers involves an acoustic guitar playing the echoes of American frontier life.  The most stunning is a 12 minute track that accompanies Lena's final stab into the unknown.  Gradual distortions and moans build into an unsteady electronic throbbing before settling into human voices, women singing the same throbbing need to be seen while a tinge of fear leads their sounds into silence.  The alien is now familiar, and what we could once keep at a distance through theory or concealment is reflected back at us.

It is unlikely any film in 2018 will top Annihilation.  I write this partly out of my own better developed sense of self-preservation, as I don't know if I could handle a film that touches on Annihilation's poetic grasp of depression while somehow improving on it.  I go to the theater in the hopes of capturing the essence of fellow-feeling and, this time, I sat in stunned tears as the credits rolled.  I got up, and found out I wasn't alone.  Take someone with you if you need, or look around the audience.  No one should face Annihilation alone.

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Annihilation (2018)

Screenplay written and directed by Alex Garland.
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny.

Posted by Andrew

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