Annihilation begins with fantastic promise, all dread and tension and sorrow embedded in the mundane experience of a normal life that’s gone to numbness. The biologist mourns her husband and goes through the motions, even while she sings the hymn of the mysteries of science to her students. Four billion years ago there was a cell and it divided into two and four and eight and on down the eons until there was us. Consciousness is such a fragile artifice that we have built civilization upon, our mythology of a history that’s only a thin veneer atop unknowable ages all descending from that one primordial cell.
And then her dead husband returns, not quite himself, not quite something else, but broken from the mind all the way down to every cell. And down the rabbit hole we go.
Weird science fiction works when it teases us that for all we know, we have only scratched the surface, living and multiplying within our own tiny padded cell on the edge of the boring part of the galaxy. It pulls back the curtains that we think are solid walls and shows us that there just might be an infinity of possibilities in the abyss that break all of our assumptions about what life and intelligence are. And more: that the universe might just annihilate us. Not from malice or even misunderstanding, but without even noticing we ever existed. Because everything we know and are is a speck so insignificant that it could be smashed in a moment by a passing something as beyond our understanding as hyperspace bypasses are to bacteria.
We’re nothing special. Just the great grandchildren of that one cell becoming two and four and eight.
But when weird science fiction doesn’t work it collapses in on itself. It just becomes inexplicable visuals for the sake of inexplicable visuals. It’s ice on fire, and crystal trees, and walls that flow like molasses. Done within the framework of a compelling story those things can be incredible visuals that complement the story, resonate with it to create something greater than the parts. But it’s so terribly easy to fall into the CGI trap, especially in a story about the horror of the unknowable. What is the actual difference on the screen between visuals that are weird because we are trying to grasp the ungraspable, and visuals that are weird because a CGI team thought something looked cool?
I don’t have a good answer for you there, other than the Supreme Court’s official definition of pornography: I know it when I see it.
But at the very least I can argue that story has to play a big role in it. If those visuals aren’t intertwined with and reinforcing a gripping story then they just become a very expensive exercise in full motion Deviant Art. Visuals in a vacuum are so much artistic masturbation.
And so Annihilation is terribly disappointing. Because it starts so well, and starts to draw you in, but there is no there there once you get there. There are about twenty minutes of story to the entire movie. It’d make an interesting short episode of Black Mirror. But stretched to a two-hour runtime? Rather than the weirdness building with each revelation, or the horrific tension that highlighted the book ratcheting up with every additional bizarre discovery, it instead deflates as it goes.
Each additional bit of knowledge gained makes the mystery less interesting rather than more. And to be clear, there is very little actual knowledge gained. They just sort of jump straight to the not particularly interesting exposition on the nature of the anomaly by Tessa Thompson in the course of two or three visually weird discoveries and call it a day. It hits a tipping point about halfway through where there is nothing left to the incredibly sparse story and we just move on to throwing increasingly abstract CGI at the screen.
Annihilation is mildly interesting visually if you’ve never flipped through google image search looking for weird sci-fi wallpapers for your desktop. It has little else to offer other than a pretentiousness of insisting it’s offering profundity while evincing no more depth than you scrawled in the margins of your notebooks during half-ignored literature classes. That’s before even getting to the infuriating ending, which not only sets up a sequel in the worst B-movie SyFy channel cliché we’ve seen a thousand times before, but in doing so entirely invalidates the rest of the book series.
Maybe Garland should bother reading the rest of a series the next time he adapts the first book.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.