Notes on watching Annihilation with teenagers Art isn’t always designed to delight

On a recent lazy evening, I sat down with my two boys to watch the new Netflix orig­inal film Annihilation. It is an unset­tling science-fiction drama directed by Ex Machina’s Alex Garland and star­ring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac. The movie tells the story of a biol­o­gist (Portman) who ventures into a myste­rious wooded area where an alien pres­ence has changed the rules of time, space and life itself; she hopes to discover how and why her husband (Isaac), an army man, returned from a mission into that same area utterly trans­formed after having been MIA for a year.

This is not a review of Annihilation—there are plenty of those already. What I want to explore is my teenage sons’ response to the film. Basically, their gut reac­tion once the end credits started rolling was, “What the hell kind of weirdo movie was that?!”

What’s Entertainment?

Their knee-jerk review was not a comment on the film’s quality. Annihilation clearly oozes atten­tion to detail and is well-crafted and intel­li­gent, with outstanding special effects and excel­lent perfor­mances all round. What gave my sons pause was not the ques­tion whether this was a good film, but that it was not “enter­taining” in the tradi­tional sense.

And they were right: like it or loathe it, a Marvel super­hero romp Annihilation is not.

The poster for Annihilation (source)

This is a brooding, dark, layered film. It offers no easy way in or out; it asks more ques­tions than it answers; it offers no reprieve from the slow descent into what­ever awaits our heroes at the end. It is, in a word, not “fun” to watch.

Does all enter­tain­ment have to be fun? Not neces­sarily, but most movies offer some sort of coun­ter­bal­ance to their not-so-fun parts. Bambi made us cry over the hero’s mother’s death, but carried us along to a joyful ending nonethe­less. Even The Walking Dead, a TV series that is hardly known for its levity, alter­nates the relent­less dread of its zombiev­erse with moments that charm, inspire, endear and delight.

Hope and Fear

Any good story weaves together dark and light threads, whether the final tapestry has a happy ending or not. The tension between the two, the conflict in the narrative—this is what defines the path towards the final reso­lu­tion.

What drives the story forward, and fuels the audience’s engage­ment with it, is the inter­play between hope and fear. When our hero is in dire straits, we hope he’ll come out all right; when all seems to be going well, we fear a monkey wrench will be thrown. Better yet: we expect that wrench to be thrown, because if all went perfectly, there wouldn’t be a story to tell.

Still from Annihilation (source)

Annihilation pushes the enve­lope on how little hope it affords it viewers. What little hope mate­ri­al­izes does not come where and when you expect it, or to whom. In a key scene, a warped bear-like crea­ture seems to have incor­po­rated the death throes of its previous victims into its own growls, perpet­u­ating their fear as part of its animal­istic vocab­u­lary. I’m just sayin’.

Both hope and fear are indelible parts of the teenage iden­tity. As a young person, you feel at once invin­cible and insignif­i­cant, naively opti­mistic and unrea­son­ably despon­dent, cock­sure and doubt-ridden. That’s part of what makes a film like Back to the Future such an enter­taining family film: it’s a highly satis­fying narra­tive pinball machine that sends the audi­ence flying from one emotional extreme to another.

Gravity

By contrast, Annihilation is the oppo­site of a pinball machine. It sets a block of lead on a sandy slope and lets us watch as the gravity of the story’s conceit drags it down, down, further down towards its even­tual reso­lu­tion. I can imagine that it was this unre­lenting grav­itas that made the film less palat­able for my sons.

That’s the thing, though. Art doesn’t have to be palat­able. You could even argue that is the job of great art to be unset­tling, to take a different course, to chal­lenge assump­tions. The nudity in Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe caused a scandal in 1862; now it sits proudly in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, for all to see.

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (source)

The expe­ri­ence of disrup­tive art may not be “fun”, but it does open up a window through which we can ask new ques­tions about what it is to be human, to be alive, to be your­self.

And these are precisely the ques­tions that Annihilation addresses. The final denoue­ment may put a gleam in the protag­o­nists’ eyes, even if it does not do the same for the audi­ence. That’s why I’m happy my boys got to watch the film—not despite their lack of enjoy­ment, but because of it. Some things need to be chewed on before the real flavor comes out.

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Top image credit: Leben und Tot (“Death and Life”) (detail), by Gustav Klimt, 1908–1916 (source)

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