Scene from Annihilation

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures


| published March 15, 2018 |

By Maggie Nichols,
Thursday Review contributor

As we have often noted here in Thursday Review’s pages—some movies, even those of a fair-to-middling caliber—might be well worth the $8 to $10 to see on the big screen, precisely because we now live in an age where the special effects often effectively make or break the value of what we are seeing. Wait for it to appear on TV—Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Redbox, whatever—and you risk losing its power, unless you are simply a gamer who is used to TV screen sized adventure anyway.

Thus, Annihilation, which was released upon the public amidst much hype regarding its glittering, eye-popping special effects and digital gimmicks despite the fact that the plot seems like a rehash of many things we have seen before, from Alien to Predator to Prometheus, along with scores of sequels and knockoffs of lesser quality.

But I may have already misled you. Annihilation, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, is one of those weird fusion things: think of a plot that is one third Big Bang Theory, one third Predator, and one third music video featuring one of the late 80s all-girl punk bands. Think of the Go-Gos if they all had PhDs and had traded their electric guitars and new wave drum kits for enormous, powerful futuristic pulse weapons.

Originally planned for filming in the Panhandle of Florida, the producers and crew quickly found the “jungle” terrain south of Tallahassee too jungly and mosquito-ridden at the very moment when the Zika virus was still top-o-the-news. So much for a Creature From the Black Lagoon meets To The Lighthouse. Instead, things were moved—of all places—to the Great Windsor Park in England, home of Windsor Castle and a few thousand acres of neatly preened golf course grass and a thousand yards of stepping stones and hedges. Whether this change of venue made things cheaper or more costly is unknown, but it surely raised the stakes for the digital editors who had to make neatly boxes 16th century hedges appear like something found in the natural environment of an uncharted, unmapped region of wilderness (presumably Earth). There is also a mysterious, mystical, all-important Lighthouse.

Our protagonists are mostly young women—a mix of scientists, members of Army Special Forces units, geologists, botanists, you name it. Again, there is nothing new here: think of The Runaways if they travelled to Jurassic Park, again armed to the teeth with cool, high tech guns. Still, there is a strangely effective set of circumstances surrounding a sci-fi movie with an all-female cast in all five lead parts: the film may play a role, in some as-yet- seen way, in helping to usher-in the tipping point for equality within Hollywood, where male leads often get paid twice what their female counterparts receive. This puts Annihilation in the right place at the right time to cash in of that growing momentum. The film also raises the value of stock in Natalie Portman; her comfortably fills the lead role and will surely gain some well-deserved critical traction for her performance.

The plot involves, as I said, a “uncharted” or “unexplored” place called Area X or “The Shimmer,” a zone from which only one of two people have returned, but many others have died or gone missing. Inside this mysterious zone, there are physical distortions, unseen and unlisted species of animals, weird creatures whose appearances are the result of rapid mutations, and a lot of Alice in Wonderland surrealism, not to mention hallucinations and dysfunctional laws of physics. Turns out even DNA is being altered at a mind-numbing pace, changing animal and human alike.

Here the film works best as a canvas for the eye candy special effects, and in many ways makes the ticket price worth the trip to the theater (more about that later), if you hurry. Like James Cameron’s Avatar, there is a lot of recycling of previous themes, but in this case the visual power is seductive and compelling to watch. There are lots of original visuals and exotic imagery, all effectively fused into the basic story.

No plot spoilers here. There is a climactic victory of sorts involving fire by flamethrower, melting evil, and a collapsing Lighthouse, then, the entire mysterious zone fades away, leaving us mildly hungry for a sequel and perhaps more explanation. This explains for rumored bitter feud between director Alex Garland and studio bankroller David Ellison—a Paramount exec who disliked the first cut and reactions to the test screening, then, demanded deep changes to the film—which may have sharply altered the mood and tone of the movie, a typical problem when the creative visions of a director are at odds with studio chief’s desire to fill theaters with warm bodies.

In fact, those dust-ups between Garland and the Paramount suits, coupled with mixed reviews from the initial screenings with test audiences, prompted Paramount and the other companies involved to fast-track this movie’s path from the big screen to the little screen: the film is already available on Netflix and other streaming services as of this week, making it one of the movie’s with the shortest theater life span in recent years. If you want that big screen experience and you are a sci-fi movie addict, go see it now—this week or next. Otherwise, count the hours until you can watch it at home.

I give Annihilation a tentative thumbs-up, but will defer to our readers as to whether this is a new classic, or a rehash of narratives we have already seen at the theaters.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Blade Runner 2049: Loew Then Expected Numbers; Thursday Review writers; Thursday Review; October 13, 2017.

Ain't Got Time to Bleed: Predator at 30 Years Old; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 12, 2017.