Annihilation: Echoes of the Past

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Annihilation is a film that tries too hard to be interesting with material that's been covered many times before.

I finally got around to seeing Annihilation yesterday and, since Barney hasn't yet seen it, I figured I'd do the inaugural review and see if he chimes in with a Five Second response once he gets to it.

Let's put the positives up front: I'm an Alex Garland fan. I loved Ex Machina, often for what it didn't do, since it avoided many of the tropes that have been attached to androids and artificial intelligence in contemporary SF and instead approached the topic on a very personal level. He didn't bother trying to ask any of the "societal impact" questions introduced by films like Blade Runner or TV series like Humans, until the very end of the film, when the audience gets a chance to consider the magnitude of the personal becoming the global. It was smart storytelling and I appreciated his moody style. Annihilation is filled with those same hallmarks. If you didn't know that Garland had directed this film, you'd be able to pick it up fairly quickly. Similarly, although I haven't read the novel that the film is sourced from, I respect the fact that it was hugely popular within the SF community, earning Jeff Vandermeer a Nebula.

All of that said, I think the film falls short in many ways, mostly because there aren't a ton of interesting or original ideas in it and those ideas that are interesting are presented in a very bare bones, matter-of-fact manner. First things first: This is The Colour Out of Space. For those of you that have never read the HP Lovercraft short story, it's essentially a tale about a hard-to-define, amoebic-like creature that crashes into a small New England town via meteorite and begins to mutate the flora and fauna around it and drive the townsfolk insane. Yes, this film is basically the same plot as a 1927 short story. I realize that, despite the efforts of reprobates like myself to keep telling Lovecraft stories, he remains relatively obscure to the wider public but it was still pretty jarring to get halfway through the film and turn to my girlfriend and say: "This is the Colour Out of Space." (Her response, of course, was: "What?")

The "twist" on the theme is the concept of "echoes" taking place in the environment and within the people that enter the Shimmer. That's not to say that said concept is uninteresting. It is pretty fascinating, depending on how it's presented. Unfortunately, the screenplay didn't give us a whole lot of room for that, since the concept of the Shimmer being a prism for not just genetics but life and its progression is presented in a brief academic lecture by physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson.) There was no real moment of discovery that the camera showed us (film is a visual medium.) It was just flatly stated and then virtually ignored by Lena (Natalie Portman.) Later on we get more demonstration of how that echoing/prismatic concept works when Lena encounters the alien in its lair at the lighthouse, but by then we're already well past the point of discovery and on to Act 3: resolution. 

In short, the story doesn't tell us anything particularly new nor does it tell it to us in a particularly innovative way that might have let the audience discover what was going on, rather than having it served up to them. Yes, there are a bunch of nice touches throughout the film that keep the themes alive in small details, like the house deep in the Shimmer having an identical interior to Lena's and the ouroboros tattoo appearing on multiple characters' arms, not only representing the classic snake eating its tail but doing so in the form of an infinity symbol. Both of those imply constant re-creation, while the ouroboros can also imply self-destruction, which is a rather pointedly emphasized aspect of the story. Indeed, the Norse version of the ouroboros, Jormungandr, is the serpent that encircles the world and will initiate the end of everything when it releases its tail and signals the start of Ragnarok. All of this stuff is kinda old hat to the SF-inclined among us.

And the film doesn't stop at drawing obvious inferences from ancient legend or 1920s pulp literature. The principle of "echoes" through time/reality caused by aliens isn't really new and, in fact, has been used quite recently in the 2016 film Arrival. Furthermore, there was plenty of imagery plucked from one of the most famous modern alien horror films of all time: The Thing. As soon as Anya (Gina Rodriguez) had the rest of the cast tied up, threatening to kill them unless they confirmed whomever she felt was the traitor, I could think of nothing else but Kurt Russell doing the same in John Carpenter's brilliant remake, as he stuck hot wires into blood samples of the men tied up in front of him. The little shock moment at the end of Annihilation, where you see the irises of Lena and Kane (Oscar Isaac) change color, indicating that they're still at least as much the alien echoes of themselves as they are the originals, was redolent of the kind of uncertain ending that The Thing employed, as well.

Unfortunately, as good as the direction was, no one's performance really stood out to me in any marked fashion. The visual effects were adequate, but nothing outside of the remains of Kane's colleague in the abandoned swimming pool really stuck with me. In the end, it's a decent film, but it's still The Colour Out of Space with a bit of emotional entanglement woven through it. Lovecraft really didn't do emotion other than despair and fear, so the film steps a bit higher than that, but not that much higher. 

Marc ReichardtFollow Marc Reichardt

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Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.

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Annihilation: Echoes of the Past There Will Be Games
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Posted: 03 Jun 2018 13:02 by drewcula #274576
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Hmm...
I thoroughly enjoyed this film and its allusions to Lovecraft. I think it's distinct enough to hold it's own.
On the big screen, it was a pure eye candy and the sound editing was top notch. I don't say this lightly, but I felt some sequences rivaled 2001.

Annihilation was one of the few instances were I felt the movie was better than the book.


I found the book a real page turner. Certainly in the vein of pulp, and not literature. I've yet to read the other two books in the trilogy, but the volumes are on my shelf.
Posted: 03 Jun 2018 17:56 by Jackwraith #274586
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That's interesting that you immediately assumed it was an allusion to Lovecraft and not just a borrowing of the concept. I haven't delved that deeply into its design to know whether the screenplay or the original novel were intended to be such an allusion. I just know that the screenplay borrowed from all three novels of the series and that Garland was fine with that because it allowed him to make a more complete image of what developed over the course of writing three books.

I saw it on the small screen, so that certainly may have affected how unimpressed I was with it, as opposed to your experience on the big screen.
Posted: 04 Jun 2018 05:12 by drewcula #274617
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Oh, that wasn't my understanding at all.
I read the screenwriter/director had only read the first book, once, and developed the script from "memory." The screenplay was entirely done & approved before the second book was available. The author and studio were pleased with the screenplay's direction because it had eerily similar beats to book two and the notes for three.
I have limited context having only read the first book.

And again, that first book was entertaining but not award winning. It's strongest feature was its length. Short, tense, with mystery intact. Had it plodded on for too long, it would have irritated the crap out of me. I suppose that's what books two and three are capable of achieving. I'll report back ;)
Posted: 04 Jun 2018 14:53 by Black Barney #274666
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Great review! I hope I get to see this at some point
Posted: 04 Jun 2018 21:13 by Jackwraith #274686
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Thanks! I'm on the verge of seeing Lady Bird and The Post, since they're both on Amazon now. Might actually be going to see something in the theater sometime soon. Not sure what's out there at the moment, though.
Posted: 05 Jun 2018 06:21 by Black Barney #274695
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If The Rider is still playing, you should see that

Let me know how you like Lady Bird

I bet The Post is going to be all sorts of meh
Posted: 05 Jun 2018 07:33 by SuperflyTNT #274707
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I wholly concur. It’s not a whole cloth retelling but it is absolutely taking CooS and expanding it to a more “ global “ event versus being set in just some blasted heath.

I loves me some Natalie Portman, but even she couldn’t save this. It was better than that old film Die! Monster Die! but wasn’t great.
Posted: 05 Jun 2018 13:39 by Space Ghost #274753
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Black Barney wrote:
If The Rider is still playing, you should see that

Let me know how you like Lady Bird

I bet The Post is going to be all sorts of meh

Post was actually pretty good. I though that Hanks and Matthew Rhys actually did a nice job. Streep was ok.
Posted: 05 Jun 2018 14:01 by charlest #274755
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I thought it was a bit boring. I love reporter/newspaper films, but thought it paled in comparison to Spotlight and wasn't in the same stratosphere as All the President's Men.
Posted: 02 Jul 2018 00:29 by Colorcrayons #276697
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Continuing discussion here, rather than the 'what movies you have been watching' thread.

When the Shimmer was revealed, I too yammered about Colour to my GF as well. It wasn't until the movie was finished did I claim that there was more than passing allusions to Colour. She even read Colour after viewing, and agreed.

I have to agree with Drew. I enjoyed this quite a bit. It doesn't do anything new. I'm somewhat glad for that, because even though the title isn't Colour, inside this beats the heart and soul of Lovecraft in such a way that it could be said that this may well be one of the best, if not the best adaptation of his work to film to date.

That's not a hard claim to make in an era when Yuzna did the best job, but there it is. All that was missing was a Jeffrey Combs cameo to make it official that this was a Lovecraft flick.

I had no idea this movie was based on a book other than Colour until just now, so I'll have to get on to some research there.

Yes, not much original here. But it was done in a way that was remarkably well suited to do Lovecraft some justice finally.
Posted: 02 Jul 2018 11:14 by Jason Lutes #276727
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drewcula wrote:
I found the book a real page turner. Certainly in the vein of pulp, and not literature. I've yet to read the other two books in the trilogy, but the volumes are on my shelf.
I enjoyed the first book but was pretty disappointed with the 2nd and 3rd. The suggestive/mysterious aspects of the first book get muddled, and my suspension of disbelief around the institutional and interpersonal stuff was thoroughly destroyed. To his credit, he doesn’t give you all of the answers, but in the end I thought the series was way overhyped.

Enjoyed the movie well enough. Great visuals — the horrible/beautiful fungal skeleton will stay with me — and I didn’t mind the slow pace.