‘A Film That is Sort of Like the Book: Review of Annihilation (2018)’ by Mike Kleine

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If you are somewhat familiar with Andrei Tarkovsky, you know that his films can be very long and very slow. A few critics have already compared ANNIHILATION to Tarkovsky—and in that regard, I would have to completely disagree. Like, 100%. While yes, there are a few moments (that in Hollywood time) might seem slow to the lay viewer, they are not slow to the point of actually being painful to watch. (Some Tarkovsky films contain scenes that are so long, I seriously believe he is doing this on purpose—to test the patience and endurance of the audience; and that’s great, but ANNHILLIATION is nothing like that). (On the flipside, a wonderful example of a film that is absolutely & truly insufferable is Wavelength by Michael Snow. I don’t think I can ever in my life watch the film again, ever; it is pure torture).

All in all, ANNIHILATION is a fair film. The direction is impressive enough and the soundtrack really is brilliant. At its core, it’s a science fiction film littered with moments of philosophical quandary and existential dread (just for good measure). It does get a bit reflexive at times (which is fine) but everything sort of comes full circle during the final twenty minutes. (If anything, stay until the final twenty minutes of the film—absolutely one hundred million times worth it). I read the book when it first came out and I loved it. I thought it was amazing. I’d never read anything else quite like it. I gave it a 5 out of 5. (I still would give it a 5 out of 5). The film is sort of like the book, in the sense that it’s about the same thing, but not in the same way. Or, let me put it this way: it feels like the director read the book when it first came out and then tried to make a film of the book, but only from memory. So there are a few similarities, but there are also a lot of differences. And this is okay. No, really, it is (I promise).

The book only made about 30% sense to me (and I loved that). The film made about 90% sense to me (and I also loved that). The film tries to explain the story more than the book, and with that, there comes a lot of deviation. At the end of the film, it tries to sort of explain why everything happened the way it happened and I did not necessarily like that—even the very last scene sort of hints at something that the book never even alluded to. But again, that’s fine. I don’t think a film adaptation should always be true to the book. As a matter of fact, I would say I encourage that films based off books be nothing like the books, only similar thematically. Another thing the book does that is so great; yes, the team is still made up entirely of women but none of them actually have real names (or, rather, we never learn their real names)! The characters are simply: biologist, psychologist, surveyor, etc—and this creates a great effect. In the film, they have names. And it makes sense to do that in a film (since it would totally alienate the average film viewer—if each character did not have a proper name. You gotta have someone you’re rooting for, right?).

I urge that you read the book tho, if you can, someday (just so you can understand how truly strange and unadaptable a thing like ANNIHILATION is). I have never truly felt anxiety-induced dread like I did while reading the book. The film is different, in that it creates a different sort of anxiety-induced dread. You truly never know what is about to happen next. The world of ANNIHILATION is never safe. And there are two sequences in particular that stood out to me (illustrating, perfectly, this sense of knowing that whatever you do, you can never truly be safe, anywhere, no matter what). One sequence takes place inside of a house and the other, within a lighthouse. (Notice how both occur indoors?).

In most films, the characters are able to anticipate what is about to take place or what is about to happen, based on where they are spatially, or, they use what they are seeing—what’s right in in front of them (usually paying attention to their surroundings)—as a way to prepare for the unknown. And since most of what these characters are going off of this is based on previous experience and a familiarity with the real world, the viewer also, is able to deduce what might happen next (based on how a bunch of other films may have handled, for instance, a similar situation. Like, a forest scene at night, for example). All of this is thrown out the window in ANNIHILATION. What happens, without ruining the film—the two sequences that stood out to me—when they take place, they force the viewer to keep asking, “Is what I am seeing right now really happening in real life or is it all in the characters’ heads?” And even that term, real life, in ANNIHILATION—it means absolutely nothing.

Early on, the team determines that the members from the previous expeditions probably went insane (at some point) and killed each other. And it is only after one has entered the shimmer that the craziness happens—and the shimmer, essentially, is a cloak around Area X that functions as a visual marker to denote how far the alien landscape has expanded onto our normal Earth. The thing that makes all of this so excellently creepy is the idea that everything in the film feels so eerily familiar, yet at the same time, there’s always something that feels off. I do want to say, I did have problems with the CGI. Some of it is stunning, other parts feel like we are back in 2007 (for instance, there’s these two antelope-like creatures that appear at one point and their movement is so unrealistic-looking, it completely took me out of the experience).

There’s a chance you haven’t heard too much about ANNIHILATION (from mainstream press) or even seen any or many previews (or know that it is based off a book). Hell, if you don’t live in the United States, you can’t even see the film yet (unless you live in Belgium, then you should, by now, already have access to the film—as of the printing of this review). Here’s the thing tho, ANNIHILATION is releasing via Netflix, exclusively (not that that’s a bad thing) but there’s a reason for that. ANNIHILATION is a film that actually takes a chance at doing something different and unique with the science fiction genre. And to the studios, this screams bad and scary and no money. Studios are afraid of new ideas (that aren’t sequels or reboots) because they think this means the movie is going to flop, especially when the average film viewer has no idea what they are paying to see—hence the Netflix international distribution, as opposed to attaching it to a bigger studio name, ergo: releasing in worldwide theatres.

Having read the book, I was super-excited to see how ANNIHILATION would translate to the big screen. NB: I want to emphasize, this is a film that is sort of like the book so not everything that’s in the book makes it to the film (interesting, also, to note that this is pretty much going to be a standalone film—there are no plans to expand and continue with the rest of the trilogy—yes, there’s two other books after ANNIHILATION). While a lot of material (from the book) was left out, for a film that doesn’t try too hard to be like the book, it definitely feels like it has purpose. There’s a heft & weight that carries the acting and moments of terror truly stand out as moments of terror. If anything, ANNIHILATION offers a glimpse into a very different type of science fiction film—one that is more interested in the haunting than the science and / or fiction.

Mike Kleine is a writer and film critic.