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.

• • •

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

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

Write A Comment