Annihilation seems to be some sort of sister product of Arrival. I had problems with the way Arrival structured its theme, but the movie was still exciting and interesting to watch. Annihilation not even that. It’s a movie without even ONE good idea, filled with flashbacks that only add bland sentimentality, and with an elaborate final scene that is inspired visually but that only apes symbolism without putting anything of value within. It’s as if one took the final sequence of 2001 Space Odyssey and stripped that visual fancy eye-candy away from any deeper meaning.

The problem is: the large majority of the public is stupid but enjoys thinking itself clever. As long a movie apes the motions of something clever and “mysterious”, most people are going to believe it. They are going to believe about deeper meanings, esoteric revelations and whatnot. The dumber the movie, the smarter they feel. And Annihilation is really dumb.

So this is what we got, straight from the wikipedia:

It received praise for its visuals, performances, direction, and thought-provoking story, but, suffered from being deemed “too intellectual” for general movie audiences.

They think it’s too smart.

an impressively ambitious—and surprisingly strange—exploration of challenging themes that should leave audiences pondering long after the end credits roll

a bracing brainteaser with the courage of its own ambiguity. You work out the answers in your own head, in your own time, in your own dreams, where the best sci-fi puzzles leave things.

deserves several viewings, and your brain’s whole attention

In order to be smart you’d have to actually say something. This movie suggests, without saying. This is the usual technique when you have nothing to say: you just pretend and let people imagine whatever they like. It’s typical illusionism.

That’s why I tend to agree more with this description instead:

I’d say this film is more “feels-provoking” than “thought-provoking.”

That’s euphemisms to say it’s manipulative.

Once the basic context has been established in the movie, nothing else is being added or even expanded. Some sort of thing arrived from the sky and produced an area where all life forms experience strong mutations. The movie ends with the spectator having the exact same information delivered already in the premise (the final revelation is that the bubble causes the DNA to “refract”, which is a functional synonym of “causes mutations”). Simply put: the movie goes nowhere. It’s more like a documentary on visual effects. It’s, if you want to be kind, esthetic poetry.

Maybe I’m too harsh but I resent when I watch a movie for two hours and the movie doesn’t even offer one worthwhile tiny idea that I can take away from it. And because the movie itself only delivered some pathetic horror scenes amidst the sentimentality bits, it was also annoying to watch. At least sometimes movies can be bad movies but still offer interesting themes and ideas. In this case it wasn’t entertaining and I haven’t taken anything worthwhile out of it either.

Without having read the book (and currently no desire going there) I don’t know if there are some actual ideas that have their legitimate roots there, so I can’t say that my “explanation” of the movie is complete. What I got out of it is that this organism interacts as an agent of change. The movie explicitly defines it “annihilation” and it is described as a process.

But of course on top of this mechanistic process that affects all biologic material there’s also contact and interaction with the “real” deal: human consciousness. That’s what makes the movie disappointing, because it’s like they had an infinite number of possibilities. The potential to really go deep. But absolutely nothing happens.

When the process interacts with consciousness what we get is that the squad of women progressively dissipates to one woman (to mirror the “morale” the movie infodumped at a previous point: that often organisms seek self-destruction for no reason). As in Arrival, the plot seems to be justified through sentimentality, but I honestly didn’t grasp the reason why one only survives. Without the book I cannot even know if some lack of “symmetry” is an artifact left by the imprint of the book itself, or a deliberate choice. For example you could interpret the finale by saying that the goal of this organism was to infiltrate humanity. So “mission accomplished”. But why two “doppelgänger” instead of one? Why the bubble didn’t dissipate when Kane came back? And why it did instead dissipate only when Lena does?

You could hypothesize that while Kane killed himself, leaving the doppelgänger, Lena instead tricked the organism into suicide. That’s quite silly, but it seems coherent with some themes in the movie (apoptosis). But this solution doesn’t hold up, because in the final scene we are shown identity between Kane and Lena. Either both are “transformed”, or both are the same. This suggests that whatever happened, happened to BOTH, in the same way. So why, again, does this organism disappear after producing two new organisms instead of just one?

You can justify that as poetic license. Plot-wise Kane came back for Lena, and Lena came back for Kane. The cycle is complete at that point. But it’s just artificial and not satisfactory.

There’s only one idea the movie does play with, and it’s the one I put in the title. This is the central point, but the problem is that the movie does nothing with it, beside simply using it. The Ship of Theseus is a philosophical concept that focuses on the idea of “identity” and what it truly means (or the illusion that builds it). In the context of this movie: what happens when all the cells in your body are recreated, are you still the same person? Are you a different person? But if you are a new person, why do you still feel like “you”?

This idea is implicit in the movie. We end up with two doppelgängers, so two “copies”. Does it mean that both Kane and Lena died and what we have now are two “impostors”? The idea that this organism recreated only the physical shape of these two individuals, in order to “infiltrate” humanity, doesn’t hold up, because they both retain, for example, language. Both Kane and Lena return not just with a physical body, but also with knowledge of human language and behavior. Human language and behavior that you aren’t BORN WITH, but that are built by living in a society. That means that these doppelgängers not only retained the physical features of their originals, but also the *minds*. How much of those minds? Well, we cannot know, but if they retained so much of that human knowledge it means they probably retained all of it. Minus some silly recent memory wipe as if they smoke a large amount of weed?

In any case, without the confirmation of the book, this is what I recognize as the central theme. These two doppelgängers might be complete, accurate copies. So how can we say that something “new” was produced if what we obtained is identical to what we started with? With the two original bodies gone, nothing was destroyed, and nothing was created.

It was all a dream.

2 Comments

  1. I think Annihilation’s strengths are intimately related to its unwillingness to explain things. It’s a perfect example of Freud’s “uncanny” and I think it’s quite an achievement. If you enjoyed Under the Skin, or Tarkovsky’s Stalker, then you should get a lot out of Annihilation.

  2. Great article.


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