There are two constants on entertainment, and both contribute to a property’s overall appeal. One: Great art has many different interpretations, and two: Great stories transcend genres.
I got to see Annihilation this past week. Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel is a visually stunning, thought provoking film that will leave the audience polarized. You either like this or you don’t. People are comparing it to Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey or Scott’s Blade Runner. I don’t see why or how.
I’ve always found 2001 to be a bore fest, and (throw stuff at me now) I’ve never been a big fan of Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s film lulls me to sleep with its imagery. Yes, its visually stunning. Face it, though, Blade Runner is poorly paced. It damn near requires carbon monoxide alarms to periodically wake you from the inevitable moments of narcolepsy you will find yourself suffering. Now, if the caveat of your comparison is Annihilation is everything people said Blade Runner or 2001 was without putting you to sleep; then you and I share the same assessment.
The secret is the sense of wonder and fear of the unknown that Garland’s script builds. As you watch the team move through the Shimmer, the narrative set up has you wondering what is behind the next tree up ahead. Plus the colors are vivid popping out at you, keeping your interest. Enough suspense has been built that you, as a viewer, want to know what the fuck is up with the Shimmer and why and what it is doing. This keeps you engrossed in it.
By contrast, 2001 had a lot of exterior space shots, basically black and white back grounds and not much going on except space ships docking with one another. And the classical music score, though iconic and great, can also be used for pre-surgery relaxation therapy. Then there is Blade Runner and Ridley Scott’s godamned light filters, plus Vangelis’ Muzak synth wave soundtrack, were a lethal cocktail of GO TO FUCKING SLEEP. And, in both cases, the story plodded along with no real suspense. Not so with Annihilation. Garland keeps you awake. He knows how to weave a mystery box with out cheating (I’m looking at you with a lens flair, JJ!).
Garland is destined to be heralded as one of the greatest early-millennial directors. I see many parallels between him and Stephen Speilberg, more so than I see with the man who has been accused of wanting to be Speilberg, JJ Abrams. Superficially, all three men have made a career out of fantastic speculative fiction. They blend tropes from horror and science fiction into what can only be described as genre defying adventures. All of their films are modern commentaries on social studies using a fantastic platform to tell their story.
Speilberg’s have been more grounded in our world and the suburban development he grew up in. JAWS, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park. Indiana Jones. Saving Private Ryan. Horror, science fiction. Adventure. All of them seen through the eyes of Speilberg as a child.
Abrams has been all over the map, dipping his chips into each bowl of dip. He’s the ultimate fanboy who sees what he likes, but doesn’t understand the broader appeal of it. As a result, many of the protagonists and supporting characters in JJ’s films are one dimensional and uninspired.
Garland, on the other hand, he’s stayed true to intimate portraits of what makes us human, using them to drive his stories. They work each and every time, without fail. He keeps the scope small. His interactions are with small numbers of characters, not fitting typical story archetypes, but psychological profiles of common people we can relate to and bond with. He is masterful at creating suspense. In spite of how personal his foundations may be, there are worldwide consequences for the action or inaction of the characters in his stories that would require assembling the Avengers in a Marvel Studios popcorn movie.
Alex Garland slowly infiltrated our popular culture and tapped into our basic fears nearly 20 years ago. He’s as much responsible for you watching the Walking Dead as Kirkman, Keene or Romero. All the while, he’s fully embraced Greek story telling and myth, using them as templates for his stories, shaking them up just a bit so you don’t recognize the source material. He’s constantly showing us the ramifications for opening Pandora’s Box, and all of them are ugly. Zombies, clones, killer AI’s, alien manifestations, to name a few.
Garland is in tune with what scares us. In the past decade, with both the written word and motion pictures, he’s has proven he has a finger on the pulse of the human psyche. And a strong appreciation for the basics. You see, Garland has been retelling Hellenic myth all along, and that’s part of the appeal of his work. His screenplays laid the foundation for what has come with Annihilation and Ex Machina.
28 Days Later helped establish the modern zombie craze was his first dip into what happens when Pandora’s Box is opened, something he revisits in Ex Machina. Never Let Me Go is dystopian Sci Fi, and it’s the myth of the Elyisum fields. Sunshine is so bold it tells you it’s the flight of Icarus, as well as a commentary on global warming and climate change. Even Dredd, a fantastic adaption of the 2000 AD comic book and reboot after the horrible 90’s Stallone vehicle, is Greek. It gives Theseus a bad attitude and a badge as he traverses a sky scraping Labyrinth to kill Ma-Ma’s interpretation of the bullish minotaur.
Now we come to his most recent entries. 2015’s Ex Machina is an amalgamation of the Pandora and Prometheus myths, while also being a study in human survival. Brothers in coding, Bateman is Prometheus, Caleb is the sibling Epimetheus, who later falls in love with Pandora, er, I mean Ava. Prometheus gets chained to a rock and is stabbed in the chest by a vulture that eats his liver every day for eternity, Bateman gets stabbed in the liver by Ava. We all know what happens when Pandora opens that box, which is tantamount to Ava’s exit from the facility in Ex Machina’s horrifying climax.
Annihilation is the myth of Orpheus and proof that love transcends change. Is the Shimmer the Underworld, or is our world? That is the question this movie has left me asking. It also questions our perceptions of individuality. Who are we and what is it that makes us… us.
Annihilation is smarter than most people will give it credit for. In fact, it’s probably smarter than most of the people going to see it. For modern “smart” hard sci fi, it’s everything Arrival and Interstellar both wanted to be, but failed to capture in their third acts. I’m eagerly awaiting Garland’s next offering. Annihilation transcends and defies. It’s art of the highest caliber, and its divisiveness if the evidence.