Annihilation Is 2018's Intelligent But Socially Awkward Letdown
Annihilation had all the right core ideas, but some funky scripting, acting, and cheap decisions added more weight to the film than its legs could bear.
I approached Annihilation with high hopes. After all, the novel series was quite successful and adored. I'll start with what I liked about Annihilation, since those seem to be few and far in between.
I thought Natalie Portman's performance was solid. She's an Academy Award winning actress, so the caliber of her portrayal in this movie is no surprise. I also enjoyed the shimmer itself, and felt the parties involved in creating the shimmer's aesthetic did a pretty darn respectable job.
Personally, it took me close to an hour to become invested in the film. In some ways, I had a better time with Arrival, because I don't remember that being the case with the latter. (I actually liked Arrival better than I did Annihilation. And I didn't really like Arrival, so there's that.) In a lot of the areas in which Annihilation fell short, Arrival did a pretty good job, actually.
I didn't like that the scene involving the funky mutated deers. It was literally an image of the same deer twice, except that one of them had a black spot on it. This was a silly place to try to cut cost, time, and effort, because to my knowledge, synchronized deer frolicking is no Olympic sport. There's always that slight chance that this was done intentionally—part of the psychotic genetic kaleidoscope that was being imposed upon us by the shimmer, but I highly doubt that to be the case.
Then we have that climactic scene toward the end of the film in which Portman's colleague projects glowing matter from her mouth before dissolving into particles of energy. On the drive home from the theatre, I dubbed this scene, "The Cosmic Vomit" and the scene that followed shortly afterward, "The Cosmic Anus" for obvious reasons.
Even my wife, which thought far more highly of Annihilation than I did, thought the imagery in these scenes was more ridiculous than it was awesome.
Furthermore, Oscar Isaac's performance in Annihilation fell short. He's typically a solid actor, but to be more specific, the few lines of dialogue that he did have in this movie (in which he wasn't an alien zombie thing) consisted of a weak "southern" accent that waned back and forth. I mean, common now.
These are the sort of "Acting 101" fails that'll really drag a film down, and Annihilation's short comings are no exception.
The alien being was pretty cool, I guess. A sort of smaller, feminine version of Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still? (2008.)
All Images: Paramount Pictures
Portman's "boss", the Federale that led their team? No bueno. She was probably my biggest gripe with Annihilation. In an attempt to create a character that was intentionally cold and stoic, she ended up portraying a character that was fraudulent and unbelievable.
Tessa Thompson does a pretty great job, actually. But she's our friend from Westworld and Thor: Ragnarok, so we've sort of come to expect a certain degree of awesomeness from her.
While pondering a film or television show's strengths and weaknesses, I consider major cinematic and storytelling elements, minute details, and everything in between. The strangest bummer is that I really liked Ex Machina, which was also met with mixed reviews, so I'm surprised to have disliked Annihilation so heavily while being such a big fan of the former.
When I go to the movies, I seek cinematic balance. I long for a story that's as engaging as it is intellectually stimulating. Soulful characters, visual uniqueness and brilliance, highs and lows, and a sense of satisfaction. When you walk out of a movie theatre, regardless of genre, you should feel joy and content in reference to what just stimulated your eyes and ears, and if you feel anything less than that, then the film simply didn't resonate with you the way good films aim to do.
It's true, not every film will satisfy every viewer. But 20.5M in 10 days is alarming to me. Very alarming. A large portion of Annihilation's poor box office performance is indeed due to Black Panther's dominance, yes. But when I try to envision the current box office offerings, and when I remove Black Panther from the equation, I don't see Annihilation packing theatres and raking in revenue in a manner that's totally different from what it's doing right now.
At some point we're going to have to reevaluate placing such a heavy emphasis and blame on the "smart sci-fi" factor. Black Mirror, Electric Dreams, and Altered Carbon are plenty smart, but they still rock and people have nothing but good things to say about them. Why? Cause they consist of sound storytelling in addition to their sharp wit.
And yes, attempting to bring in big box office numbers with a film that's deeply rooted in science, physics, or other intellectually demanding matters certainly adds an additional layer of difficulty to film making, when compared to overgrown animal monsters, robot cars, and caped crusaders, but we simultaneously cannot use the sciences as a cinematic crutch, when we fail to deliver great dialogue, evoking imagery, and raw emotion.
I will not condone a sub-par cinematic production claiming brilliance under the guise of being too intelligent for the masses. Annihilation's issues are not problems of being too "smart" of a movie. But more so, they're far more simplistic issues of mediocre scripting, mediocre acting, cheap effects, pacing, and downright less-than-impactful storytelling. (Doesn't take a genius to figure that much out.)
Subjective preferences aside, I simply felt Annihilation allowed too many small inadequacies to compile and negatively impact the movie—issues that could have easily been remedied with a little more time and care. Couple all of that and more with Black Panther's dominance these past couple weeks, and you've got yourself a surefire recipe for box office implosion.
I hope a master of attention to detail or two can come along soon and produce one of these so-called "smart sci-fi" film's the right way (and don't forget about the marketing!), so that it can garner the respect of critics as well as the movie-going masses.