‘Annihilation’ Is A Beautiful, Scary, And Sometimes Maddening Hybrid Of Classic Sci-Fi And Weird Fiction
Courtesy of Paramount

Courtesy of Paramount

And Natalie Portman ‘Israeli’ good in it, too.

but first...

 

Five Jewish Facts About “Annihilation”:

 

1. The film stars two Jewish actresses: Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Portman was born in Jerusalem while Leigh is of Jewish-Austrian-Russian descent.

2. The studio originally wanted to cast Julianne Moore in the lead role that would go to Portman. Moore’s father is one-eighth German-Jewish.

3. The movie was produced by Jewish producer Scott Rudin. He actually clashed with the studio, standing by Alex Garland’s refusal to alter the movie, after a Paramount financier thought the movie was too intellectual for mainstream audiences. This argument is believed to be why Netflix became the international distributor for the movie. “Annihilation” is only getting a theatrical release in China and North America.

4. The author who wrote the book on which the movie is based, Jeff VanderMeer, has been compared to Franz Kafka. Kafka, the Ashkenazi Jew from Prague, wrote such seminal works as “The Metamorphosis” and “The Trial.” His style of writing lent itself to the word “Kafkaesque,” which means: Marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger.

5. In VanderMeer’s novel, the word “Annihilation” is a hypnotic suggestion that is meant to drive people to suicide. The word has a similarly dark connotation for all Jewish peoples. In 1939, Adolf Hitler made a speech, saying:

“The peoples [of the earth] will soon realize that Germany under National Socialism does not desire the enmity of other peoples. I want once again to be a prophet. If the international Finance-Jewry inside and outside of Europe should succeed in plunging the peoples of the earth once again into a world war, the result will be not the Bolshevization of earth, and thus a Jewish victory, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”


Warning: The following contains minor spoilers for "Annihilation."

REVIEW:

Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft once wrote, “To the scientist, there is the joy in pursuing truth which nearly counteracts the depressing revelations of truth.” This quote rings true for “Annihilation,” the second directorial outing for Alex Garland, the filmmaker behind the artificial intelligence-centered fable “Ex Machina” in 2015. The cosmic dread and fear of what lies just beyond our own — and insignificant — veil of understanding that pervade Lovecraft’s work are beautifully suited to the director’s penchant for presenting bleak and spine-tingling futures onscreen (he also wrote “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine”).

Garland’s talents are on full display in an adaptation of the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy. We open on an asteroid/meteor crashing to the earth and striking a lighthouse in a U.S. national park. Weird things begin to happen as a strange, hazy wall dubbed “the Shimmer” originates from the disaster zone. It’s more of a curtain than wall and more oil slick than curtain, but anything caught in “Area X” begins to mutate into strange hybrids as some force gets down and freaky with the DNA of organic matter.




Courtesy of Paramount

The worst part is that the Shimmer’s expanding with each year and the government’s got no idea how to stop it. If you’re a fan of Lovecraftian literature, you’ll be having flashbacks to his 1927 story “The Colour of of Space.” But it’s not an overtly evil entity, merely one that wants to survive, grow, and multiply like any species in existence such as the shape-shifting alien in John Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing.”

Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist who decides to join an all-female foray into Area X to see what happened to her husband (Oscar Isaac) on the previous expedition. Portman gives a fierce performance, exhibiting a great range of humor, seriousness, and despair. In short, we need a lot more badass women in sci-fi.

As Lena and the rest of the scientifically-minded crew (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny) penetrate further, they’re stalked by unspeakable horrors, turn into tree people, or lose their minds entirely, the latter being a cornerstone of weird fiction. The narrative is non-linear, flashing between the past and present in a conscious effort to disorient the audience, make us start to mistrust the visuals we are seeing.

There are flashes of “Aliens” (the Ripley parallel is obvious if you're paying attention), “Jurassic Park,” “Shutter Island,” but never committing to the confines of any of these classics. “Annihilation” is a science fiction action movie, a psychological thriller, and a metaphysical think piece all in one. Just like Area X, itself, the film blends genres and cinematic components from the past to make something new, everything and nothing.




Courtesy of Paramount

If we’re splitting hairs here, the film is almost nothing like the book, but that’s good in a lot of respects. For one thing, the characters get names and developed back stories, which were not in the novel. Moreover, by presenting VanderMeer’s work in a visual format, Garland does a much better job of conjuring up some truly terrifying and unnerving images; a grisly mutation in an empty swimming pool or a flinch-worthy and impromptu stomach surgery. One instance of unadulterated creature feature terror, you’ll be reminded why Rob Bottin’s practical effects are so terrifying in “The Thing,” the recognizable becoming otherworldly.

And while there are many unanswered mysteries here, Garland does clear up some of the book’s more vague plot points like the origin of the Shimmer and its effect on living things. All in all, there are things the novel does very well and things the movie does very well. Even if some elements don’t click together or leave you asking questions, “Annihilation” is a beautifully shot feature, which revels in its own beauty and ambition--the out of focus edges in the frame for any sequences in Area X were a very nice touch. The movie will scare the pants off you, frustrate you, and get your mind working into overtime.

The climax might prove to be a little too out there for some audience members (think the psychedelic trip at the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey”), but this isn’t your straightforward sci-fi epic. Rather, it’s akin to the love child of Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Darren Aronofsky, Alfred Hitchcock, and Lars von Trier. Not everything in the universe is meant to be understood, not every mystery needs to be solved, and sometimes, even madness is preferable to the depressing revelations of the truth.


"Annihilation" opens Friday, February 23.

Annihilation

Natalie Portman

Alex Garland

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