Monday, March 19, 2018

"Annihilation": Gals with Guns

Here there be spoilers. 
Sometimes the audiences are smarter than the critics. Though science fiction is not my favorite genre, I went to see Annihilation because a family member went to high school with Tessa Thompson, a rising star who plays one of the five brainy, gutsy women (Natalie Portman leads the pack) at the center of the drama. Tessa was always a charmer, and I wanted to check out what she was up to. Then there was the fact that the writer and director of Annihilation, Alex Garland, had earlier given us Ex Machina, an eerily effective thriller about all-too-human robots. And the critics I read made Annihilation sound both visually stunning and intellectually fascinating: a cerebral mind-game with art-film overtones (think Russia’s Andrei Tarkovsky). 

Don’t believe everything you read. I saw the film on a Saturday night in a nearly empty theatre, an indication of the public’s general disdain for the blather that Annihilation puts forth as challenging futuristic ideas. Yes, it’s potentially of interest that, within the mysterious force-field known as “the shimmer,” the DNA of various species (including the human) recombines to form new beings. But I never got the sense that anyone had bothered to think through the implications of this concept. Questions abound. Like -- why is the fate of each member of Portman’s all-female team of scientists and general bad-asses so different? Why – spoiler alert -- is Portman the only one of the five who makes it through to the end of the movie? I’ve tried to logic this out, and come up with the only possible conclusion: Portman’s character survives, in a shell-shocked but still fundamentally human state, because she’s the star of the movie.

Over the years, when working with writers and directors, I’ve clung to a basic principle when it comes to screenplays: you’ve got to know the rules of your world. Even if – especially if -- you’re dealing in fantasy or science fiction, the filmmakers need to grasp the parameters of what they’re creating. Not that the audience must be force-fed every crumb of information: we viewers often have to do some mental work in order to be rewarded with an understanding of what’s going on.  The trouble is that in Annihilation I didn’t feel anyone had a full grasp of the world the film sets in motion. You can only get so far why saying that the universe is a mysterious place. 

Here’s an example of the vagueness that had me so frustrated: lots of screen-time is devoted to hints about Portman’s marriage to a soldier (Oscar Isaac) who had gone missing on a mysterious mission, but then resurfaces under strange conditions. Late in the film we discover that she’s had a passionate affair with another man, and that she suspects that Isaac suspects. OK, but how does this tie into anything? Personally, I think her romantic complications are just the filmmakers’ excuse to throw another sex scene into the mix. 

Then there are her comrades in arms, Tessa Thompson among them. Their backstories are summed up in a sentence or so, full of hints about past traumas. But, frankly, these women seem to have no interior lives. Nor, really, does Portman. Why the heck did she serve several tours of duty in the military (developing weaponry expertise) before becoming a professor of biology? Call me a Roger Corman-style cynic, but I think the all-female cadre of scientists on this mission is just an excuse for enticing scenes of Gals with Guns. 

Intellectual mind-games? How about intellectual claptrap? Watching this movie pretty much annihilated me.

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