“Annihilation” reaction / by Jerald Pierce

Originally submitted as part of an assignment for Matt Zoller Seitz's Literature of Criticism class at Newhouse.

I’m going to spend this assignment again writing about two reviews of the same work. There’s an interesting divide between Brian Tallerico’s review for RogerEbert.com and Christopher Orr’s review for The Atlantic of “Annihilation.” Tallerico heaped praise on the film, giving it three and a half stars while saying that “in this recent wave of sci-fi films, it’s one of the best.” Orr, on the other hand, seemed annoyed at every turn of the movie aside from stints of suspense and visual intrigue in the middle of the film.

I find myself somewhere in between and reminded of two instances of criticism I’ve witnessed. The first I addressed in my last assignment, the idea that two reviewers can notice the same flaw but one may find it easy to get past while the other may have his experience significantly ruined by the fault. The same happens here. Tallerico notices the ambiguity and even says the structure frustrated him a bit and notes the movie may provide different meanings for different people. For Orr, that lack of a clear meaning also meant there was a lack of clear content.

The other moment I was reminded of while reading these two articles was a review of a play I was stage managing a few years ago. A reviewer came to opening night and heaped insane amounts of praise on the show, complimenting how complex the show was and saying people would need to see it twice just to understand all of the sophisticated inner workings. He came back. I saw his face after the second viewing and could feel how much he regretted what he said. The show (I know from watching it daily for months) wasn’t complex. It was just confusing.

I get the same feeling here. Tallerico representing the opening night mindset of the reviewer with Orr standing in for the regretful second view. This is why I find myself on the fence about the movie. The elements of suspense, basically everything that happens from the moment they step inside the Shimmer to the moment Natalie Portman’s character is on her own, is beautifully crafted to feel like they’ve traveled to another planet. The constant feeling of impending doom begs me to think that aliens are after them, even though they aren’t. In reality, there’s nothing more dangerous around them than if they had been there pre-Shimmer. Gators and bears still exist, they’re just slightly more terrifying now.

Which, for me--and I guess for Orr, too--makes the ending all that more disappointing. I find myself siding with Orr when looking at everything that happens once Portman gets to the lighthouse. As much as I actually love the mirror aspect (because I a huge fan of sci-fi movies showing aliens learning--which probably stems from the brilliant Doctor Who episode “Midnight”), Portman tricking and killing the alien feels hollow. I have to attribute that to what Orr said: the complete lack of any indication of motive. So far, nothing inside the Shimmer has looked to be done maliciously. Even the mutated intestines that result in the soldier’s body being pulled apart feels like more of an alien “oh, sorry, we didn’t realize your human bodies suck and can’t handle this stuff” than them trying to kill.

So maybe I’m just an alien apologist, but when Portman kills the alien and burns everything to the ground, it feels like a massive waste. This whole movie has built up to this lighthouse that for some unexplained reason has dismembered skeletons as tributes(?) outside. All the buildup for very little payoff and without any indication that the audience should regard Portman’s character as the wrongdoer.

(A quick aside about the skeletons. Are they supposed to represent the other people who were sent on expeditions? Or people who were originally around? Either way, where are their duplicates? If they were duplicated, why didn’t the duplicates make it out? Or did they? Speaking of, why did Kane’s duplicate have so much trouble living outside of the Shimmer? If I was presented this script in my playwriting workshop, I’d have to be thrown out because I’d just keep asking questions.)

Anyway, as creepy and beautiful as the movie was up to arriving at the lighthouse, the climax shed very little light on the rest of the movie. I love puzzle sci-fi movies that work to confuse as much as possible. I enjoy trying to piece together what was going on. But here there seem to be missing pieces, as Orr points out. But still part of me leans toward Tallerico’s conclusion that it was still a massively enjoyable movie and one that other sci-fi movies should aspire to be like. There’s darkness matched with beauty and one of my favorite Natalie Portman performances to date. I think both things can be true: 1. The movie’s ending is confusing and leaves the film without a solid point. 2. The movie is great sci-fi that should be admired for what it does.