Natalie Portman starring in the 2018 film “Annihilation.” (Photo by Paramount Pictures)

The case for in-theater viewing of “Annihilation”

February 27, 2018

The United States is one of the three markets, the others being China and Canada, that actually gets the opportunity to see “Annihilation” in theaters. Paramount chickened out on the film and sold it to Netflix to save some face, so the rest of the world will get the film 17 days after its theatrical release. Yes, of course it would be great to be able to watch from the comfort of your couch and not deal with that one warthog faced buffoon sitting a row up and a seat to the left of you who spends 90 percent of the movie he paid 15 dollars to see on his phone (this may or may not be based on a real experience).  However, please take a moment to endure a counter argument as to why “Annihilation” is not just a film that deserves to be watched, but that deserves to be watched on the big screen.

The movie, based on Jeff Vandermeer’s book of the same name (which, if I may use first person for a brief moment, I have not read), stars most notably Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac and Tessa Thompson and is directed by Alex Garland of “Ex Machina” fame. Portman plays Lena, an army veteran teaching a section of biology at Johns Hopkins University, who gets dragged to the mysterious “Site X” government facility after her husband (also military) returns from his mission in a confused state. It is there that she finds out something called “the shimmer” (essentially a giant bubble) is covering a coastal portion of the U.S.  It continuously expands and will eventually cover the globe. The only thing the government knows about what goes on inside is that all the teams they send in don’t come out. Lena joins with the next group to go into the shimmer to stop the expansion and figure out what happened to her husband.

The film plays it as a straight sci-fi mystery/thriller and, once you get past the unoriginal sci-fi words (Site X, really?) it works extremely well. Once the crew gets into the shimmer, they immediately wake up from camp and find they can not remember setting up camp or how they got there. It doesn’t make the audience feel like they missed out, but it does set the tone early that anything is possible inside the shimmer. Garland demonstrates good progression by having things build slowly on the WTH(eck) scale from a one, all the way up to a ten. That feeling of uncertainty carries the audience between the action packed parts, preventing drag. In those action parts, Garland makes the audience to sit in a suffocating silence, allowing the tension to build to terrifying heights. Bears have never been so scary.

The events are certainly interesting, but the people they are happening to…not so much. Garland puts such great focus on the environment that the characters are left behind. Lena’s crew members are just boiled down to their occupations; the psychiatrist, the tech person, the medic and the physicist. Outside of that, we get little information on them. Additionally, while the actors all portray the wild emotional swings these characters go through well, it never feels like anyone has a distinguished personality. Combining these, it is easy to get more invested in what happens to the characters rather than the characters themselves. Lena certainly gets a more fleshed out background, shown through flashbacks, but it’s mostly just to explain her relationship with her husband. The film trusts that the audience will attach to her because she is Natalie Portman, which does kind of work.

Once the mystery concludes, many questions are left unanswered. Are plants people? Are people plants? How come stuff happens to some things and not to others? What’s up with tattoos? What does the ending mean? There we shall stop to avoid spoilers, but the list could go on. It gets to the point where it is unclear whether the movie is provoking thought, or just does not explain a bunch of things. Whether or not audience members believe “Annihilation”is thought provoking is subjective, as is whether they will think the mystery of the plot outweighs the poor characters (for the record, I thought most of the questions were genuine and not just poor explanations and loved the plot).

What is not subjective is the pure beauty of what happens inside the shimmer. During the day, things are bright with a wide variety of colors, and things become covered in a deathly darkness and decayed look during the night. The creatures have creative designs, some of which are beautiful, while the creepier ones still look good even if beautiful would not be the apt adjective. It’s these visuals that make this a movie to be seen on the big screen with everything shown in its full splendor rather than crunched up on a laptop or phone. When you combine that with the constant tension produced by the ambiguity of the shimmer and the questions that this leaves you with, “Annihilation” is a film that any sci-fi fan should make the sacrifice to go see in theaters rather than downloading an illegal Google add-on that allows you to watch other countries’ Netflix options.

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