Even as it has sunk like a stone commercially, Annihilation has drawn a flurry of passionate responses, mainly, it seems, from women writers. Many single out its admixture of beauty and horror, and the way it foregrounds female agency to an unusual degree for a big-budget film. (Alas, that may have been a factor in its commercial demise: young male target audiences were put off by an adventure film in which the exploration team is made up entirely of women scientists without a “reasonable” back story like every single eligible man is dead.)
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Cinematographer Rob Hardy posted a still from Stalker to Instagram a few years ago, commenting that it was “the only film to appear in the research library for our current film.”
That current film was Annihilation, and the fact that its makers were pointing to one of the cinema’s most revered and most difficult artifacts is testament to its ambition and daring. But does the risk pay off? That’s a question that’s currently being debated in the film industry, as Paramount, panicked at the test audience reaction to the $40 million film, has sold off the foreign rights to Netflix. Outside of the United States and Canada, the film could only be seen via streaming services – in other words, on televisions, computers or even phones. The director has been protesting, with some cause, that the visually immersive film loses a tremendous amount by its aborted theatrical release. “In a cinema, you are slightly assaulted by the images and sound,” director Alex Garland told The Times, “and can’t go and make tea.” He points out that the theatrical experience is endangered for anything outside of the guaranteed blockbuster, concluding “That is where the big fight is going to be. Where cinemas end up is an unknown.”
In some sense, these issues of distribution and scarcity – indeed, of threatened extinction – are themselves the subject of the film. Garland has produced several of the most promising films of the last few years – both Annihilation and Ex Machina (2014) pull of that neat auteurist trick of transforming genre work into something original and challenging.
Even as it has sunk like a stone commercially, Annihilation has drawn a flurry of passionate responses, mainly, it seems, from women writers. Many single out its admixture of beauty and horror, and the way it foregrounds female agency to an unusual degree for a big-budget film. (Alas, that may have been a factor in its commercial demise: young male target audiences were put off by an adventure film in which the exploration team is made up entirely of women scientists without a “reasonable” back story like every single eligible man is dead.) Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, observes “ In an age where critics and fans castigate creators endlessly for their lack of ambition in casting women and minorities, and complain that films offer pat solutions and uncomplicated heroes, this was infinitely depressing. Maybe we’re only getting the films we deserve.”
Among the troubling elements: the way Ex Machina was almost universally hailed as innovative genre fiction, exploring the politics of artificial intelligence through the lens of gender inequities. Ex Machina was an audience and critical favorite, earning critical approval of 92% and audience approval of 86%. The more ambitious (and expensive) Annihilation dropped somewhat precipitously, especially with audiences, at 87% (critics) and 68% (audiences). For those of us (mainly women film reviewers, it seems) who regard Annihilation as a breakthrough, the lack of commercial or critical push for the film is depressing.
Some of the more cynical among us wonder if the difference couldn’t be summed up between a story about a sexy automaton who may be dressed up and screwed and may or may not be fully cognizant, and a platoon of women adorned with combat fatigues and uzis.
That is, this
“Too intellectual.” So decreed producer David Ellison, discussing the explanatory flashbacks that make up one of the few mundane misfires of the film, and finally pulling the plug on a full rollout. This verdict seems particularly unfair to those of us who found our experience of Annihilation one of the more visceral in our recent filmgoing. Manohla Dargis, in her review, speaks to the way the film “soon slithers under your skin.” Emily Yoshida gives Garland credit for “doing emotional work,” which strikes me as cryptic but on the mark; that is, it has something to do with women’s work; to do with women: and Garland is being punished accordingly. Going even further in her rather astonishing tribute to the film, Angelica Jade Bastién recounts for Vox how “the tremendous and beautifully brutal Annihilation” helped her find her way back after a recent suicide attempt. She experienced the film as almost a documentary of her own depression. “It’s a masterwork I felt in my nerve endings.”
Annihilation, like so many sci-fi movies, concerns a sudden catastrophic event from outer space. Something (a meteor?) has struck a lighthouse in the middle of a national park, creating a sort of warp in the time-space continuum, an iridescent zone deemed the Shimmer by the military personnel attempting to contain it. Inside this area, which has been steadily growing, human instruments of measurement and divination simply do not work; as we see when we eventually enter along with the all-female scientific team. There are some possible reasons for sending in an all-women team, though they are not dwelt upon. In short, the male military teams that have gone in previously have wreaked havoc on one another; the officer in charge, Dr. Ventress (played by a fierce Jennifer Jason Leigh) seems to have decided to mix it up,as well as to lead this particular charge herself. Desperate times call for desperate measures like employing women: we learn that the Shimmer is expanding at a rapid pace; if it continues unimpeded it will eventually swallow the Earth and all its creatures.
For Bastién, the Shimmer worked as a visual manifestation of her own experience of depression, particularly how time seems to collapse and the laws of physics become monstrous and uncanny. In her experience, then, the Shimmer becomes a sort of filmic manifestation of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar, one with an oily sheen.
Plath extends the metaphor, “[W]herever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” And so too, in Annihilation, the relatively simple (not at all intellectual, in fact) plot of alien occupation is complicated by the ways in which humans are seen to shape the warped landscape with their own irrational and self-destructive impulses. If the air is changing, becoming unbreathable, it is being generated by them. In one of the central exchanges of the film, Portman’s character, Lena, asks Dr. Ventress why her husband had volunteered to go into the Shimmer, essentially a suicide mission. “Almost none of us commit suicide. And almost all of us self-destruct,” replies Dr. Ventress.
Which brings us to Annihilation’s urtext: not the recent sci-fi trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer from which it takes its name, but Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. A centerpiece in the life of the deep-thinking cinephile, Stalker is itself not particularly intellectual, in spite of featuring three characters with gigantic, bulbous heads, called simply: the Writer, the Scientist, and the Stalker. The squad in this film, like that of Annihilation, enters a forbidden zone simultaneously of great peril and great beauty (called the Zone in the Stalker and Area X in the post-X-Files universe of Annihilation).
Since Stalker is itself about breaking the boundaries of film technique (and the debilitating confines of late-Soviet Russia), let me introduce a new video dimension to my essay. While piddling around this morning (“researching”), I found this clip on YouTube, with numerous literary and film luminaries discussing the film before an audience as they watch it bit by bit.
The remarkable thing is that this panel on a somewhat obscure art film has 32,961 views, an indication of the almost hypnotic thrall in which it holds its fans. Looking to the panel on the right, I see virtually all Tarkovsky items boast such numbers or higher. A reminder that this idiosyncratic Russian director, working under duress with extremely compromised materials, continues to hold sway with a significant swathe of filmgoers. It’s my sense he’s picking up more all the time.
Further insight into the nature of this spell can be gleaned from one of the members of this particular panel: the renowned cultural critic Geoff Dyer. Dyer has carved an enviable career for himself out of what seem to be unpromising materials: travel narratives, jazz appreciations, photo and film criticism. But he outdid himself on his book devoted, solely, to Stalker (though the book perhaps inevitably branches off into his personal history and preoccupations).
That book, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (2012), does a good job explaining what was innovative, even one-of-a-kind about Stalker itself. On the face of it, the film is almost unwatchable, as Dyer admits he found it on first viewing. The film’s pace is incredibly slow and strange, and the experience of viewing it can be compared to the grueling boredom of a meditation retreat in which one is asked the impossible task of simply paying attention to one’s own breath. Dyer explains the unusual effect of this film here as he examines a key scene encapsulating our philosophical trio’s journey into the zone:
Reading Dyer’s account has deepened my understanding of the ways in which Tarkovsky unsettles our usual frames for viewing; how he plays with time by slowing down the action to an excruciating degree; moves sound sneakily into the forefront; and startles with a sudden burst of color. All laudable and interesting and all those good things: so why do I feel alienated from both Dyer’s cleverness and Tarkovsky’s zone?
Dyer’s book revolves around his own skills as a collector and connoisseur, as does all critical work in some sense. But in his continual return to how difficult, even off-putting the film is; how, in the pre-digital age he was forced to seek it out in Paris, in Turkey, and in New York, he reminds me of one of those obsessive vinyl collectors of yore whose pleasure always seemed built on some fetichistic need to both acquire and exclude. (These collectors are exclusively, in my experience, men.) As for Tarkovsky, the wife and girl-child must be left behind, even violently, when one enters the Zone with the Writer, the Scientist, and the Stalker. Even as I go along for the ride, I never feel completely present, no matter how my senses are lulled and dazzled. Whereas Annihilation, seemingly more prosaic in its storytelling, invaded my dreams in the way that only Melancholia has in recent years. It works at multiple levels including, for me, the subconscious.
Which brings me, at long last, to my experience of Annihilation. It draws very deeply from Stalker, as cinematographer Hardy indicated in his Instagram post. It is an immersive experience that gains immeasurably from the theatrical experience, as Garland himself has posited.It does so simultaneously more sneakily and more showily than its precursor (Stalker), relying on expensive special effects that, at times, seem like an immersive futuristic science show. We see bears, crocodiles and human beings morphing, terrifyingly, into something else; recombining and mutating. As in Stalker, the participants lose track of time (though we as viewers do not), but they are also invaded by the landscape in an incredibly persuasive way–right before our eyes–thanks to the wonders of late-state capitalist computer graphics. Annihilation doesn’t ask as much of its viewers as Stalker–it is less prohibitive of entry, and has the texture and sheen of a conventional current movie. But I would argue it does much of the same work as the late-Soviet masterpiece.
These recombinant images are informed by all of the best sci-fi of the previous century in cinema: The Fly, Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the list goes on and on, like a beautiful record collection. Nonetheless, Annihilation works on a very primal level. Just as Tarkovsky’s film reflected late-Soviet Russia, the richness of its human resources and the emptied, polluted landscape, Garland takes up the Anthropocene, the new geological era that we have catapulted ourselves into, where climate change and the plummet in biodiversity is fast changing our planet. As much as viewers of Annihilation attempt to tame the film as part of their personal psychological furniture, or a beautiful addition to their cinematic collection, or (in what seems to be happening) avoiding it altogether, it exists. Whether in the theater or on its recent iteration, Netflix, it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
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All images are screenshots from the films.