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?!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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