Thursday, August 16, 2018

Annihilation: A Fresh But Imperfect Take On The Alien Invasion Genre

When it comes to movies, the sci-fi (science-fiction) genre sits at a very special place in my heart. If you are going to scoop out my brain and place it under a microscope, you’ll get a million “what ifs” floating around. What if the planet Mars used to be inhabited by sentient beings? What if Earth is but a figment of our imagination? What if you can turn back time to millions of years ago and transplant yourself smack in the middle of the catastrophic event that wiped out the dinosaurs? What if the sun is not an organic thing but is actually a well-oiled machine built by an army of extra-terrestrials from a far-flung galaxy? What if 100 years from now, thousands of metallic monsters arise from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to wreak havoc on us puny humans?

Yes, I know. Sci-fi plots range from the realistic to the totally absurd. But these are the exact attributes that make the genre very interesting and enjoyable. There’s something for everyone. Maybe that’s just the escapist in me talking. Anyway, I like anything remotely related to sci-fi, even the ones that you would consider as bad or what a reviewer for the New York Times once referred to as “sci-fi feces”. Case in point is the action classic Predator starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. That movie is over-the-top, absurd, and plain stupid. But it’s fun and enjoyable to watch. And the premise is actually unique. The film caters to a “what if” scenario. What if merciless warriors from another planet visit Earth with the sole intention of hunting humans for sport? Nice. Now that’s a plot. And who can forget that iconic line: “Back to the chappahhhhh!

A few days ago, with the monsoon rains making it almost impossible to go out of the house, I took the time to watch Annihilation, one of the most recent sci-fi pictures to hit the big screen this year. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the film so my expectations were higher than normal. The “what if” scenario for Annihilation is this: What if a meteorite crashes on Earth and what if such a meteorite carries “something” that starts transforming Earth’s organisms into mutating monsters?

Based on a book of the same title by James Vandermeer, Annihilation offers a fresh perspective on the alien invasion genre. I haven’t read the book so I don’t have the slightest idea if Vandermeer stayed close to the book with his adaptation. Annihilation is one of those films that I’d like to describe as “almost great”. It’s a great movie but it’s riddled with plot holes and story flaws so I’d have to demote it to the “good” category. Still, it’s one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in years.

There are several things to like about Annihilation. First off, it was marketed as a sci-fi horror. I thought they were kidding but after seeing the film, I saw why they placed it under that category. There are scenes in the film that can potentially make viewers squirm. You’ve been warned. There’s one specific scene involving a mutated bear that quickly reminded me of scenes from the Alien movie franchise. I wouldn’t be surprised if director Alex Garland took cues from that series in developing that scene. For those not in the loop, Alex Garland is the same director behind Ex Machina, another great sci-fi film that came out a couple of years ago.

Visually-speaking, Annihilation is a masterpiece. Remember that the plot of this film revolves around mutations happening due to an “alien matter” that arrived on Earth through a meteor crash. Something called “The Shimmer” has developed around the area where the meteor landed. Organisms within The Shimmer started mutating in ways that can be considered as biologically impossible. The mutations don’t seem to make distinctions between flora and fauna. For example, flowers and plants started growing on the antlers of deer. I can already picture biologists watching this film and exclaiming “that’s completely absurd”. But you have to admit, the visuals in this film are unique and they mess with your head. You could see that they invested in artists to get the concepts off the ground.

Another great thing about the film is its pace. It takes its time to unpack the story and build up on the suspense factor. I’ve read other reviews saying that the film is so slow and boring. I understand where these types of reviews are coming from because the film truly starts slow. It only begins picking up the pace at around the halfway mark. Some viewers looked at this as a negative thing, but for me, the slow pace helped in carrying the film to its climax.

Annihilation official movie poster.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, Annihilation has its plot holes and story flaws. There are inconsistencies on the flow of the story. There was an early scene in the movie wherein the characters wake up inside The Shimmer not having any memory of what happened in the last few days. Somehow, this strange phenomenon got forgotten in the rest of the film. It’s like the incident was so random and it didn’t affect them at all in the next days they were in The Shimmer. The characters seem to remember everything after that. That’s inconsistency.

In a nutshell, Annihilation is a great but flawed sci-fi movie. What I love most about it is that it’s not preachy. At its core, it’s an alien invasion movie but it doesn’t paint the aliens as good guys or bad guys. Hell, the end credits start rolling and we don’t even know what the aliens want. We don’t know if the “thing” that came with the meteor is here to destroy us or help us. Or the crash could just be one of a million random incidents occurring in an endless universe. In a scientific perspective, that’s a good thing. There’s so much we don’t know about the world and the universe. Lucky for us, we have scientists working day and night to help us understand things and how they work.

If I am to score Annihilation, I’d give it 3.5 stars out of 5.