Annihilation the Movie; That One Scene

Warning; Spoilers probably.

This isn’t a complete review, so here’s a link to the cast and crew, if you’re interested.

I saw the movie Annihilation. I liked it, and I think I will be in the minority.

There were five other people in the theater with me (a weekday matinee).During the movie two people got up and left and did not come back. They weren’t together and they left at different times. Plainly, they weren’t engaged by the film. I understand that.

The film is inspired by JeffVanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. The book excels at creating a serious sense of dislocation from reality. The characters, five women on an expedition into a quarantined area, don’t know what they can trust. They begin to lose time, and memory. Directions don’t seem to match what their senses (and their equipment) tells them, and all around them, the wildlife is changing in breathtaking and terrifying ways. Frankly, I wasn’t sure a film could convey the sense of dislocation. Otherness, yes… but genuinely not knowing what you are seeing, feeling, hearing? Growing to doubt the most fundamental sense of yourself? Hard to see how you do that in a film.

I’m not sure writer/director Alex Garland did do it. He did, however, make the quarantined land, Area X, convincing as a landscape unto itself, bound by no earthly rules of physics or biology, in which humans are merely raw material.

One scene sold me on this film. It was terrifying to me – and no, it isn’t the disgusting scene you may have heard about. (Quasi-spoiler: for those of you planning to see Annihilation, if you are squeamish, in the scene that begins, “For those who come after,” be prepared to cover your eyes. Seriously.) No, shortly after that scene, Lena, the biologist main character and two of her colleagues are gagged and tied to chairs by the fourth one, Thorensen, who is not-so-quietly going crazy. The fifth member, Shepherd, was already carried off by a mutated bear-boar-monster. Lena saw her remains. On the verge of eviscerating Lena, Thorensen suddenly hears Shepherd screaming for help. They all hear it. It’s not an hallucination. Thorensen runs outside and vanishes. And then, into the darkened room with the bound and gagged women comes the mutated bear. It roars, and when it roars it also screams from help in Shepherd’s voice.

The scene is shot very dark with weird angles and strong shadowing as the beast paces around them, roaring and screaming. Each growl and roar is a cry from Shepherd, who they couldn’t help, begging for help. It’s surreal. It’s painful. It’s sad. I was hunched down in my seat with my arms crossed over my midriff.

I don’t know whether Garland knows it, but this effect pays homage to a terrifying creature Gene Wolfe created in The Books of the New Sun — the alzabo. The alzabo apparently was brought to earth from another planet. It is a predator, and when it eats a human, it absorbs the memories, yearnings and loves of that human. It is still an alien animal, but its hunger is now mixed with the love of its last prey, so it will come to the house of the loved ones on the person it just devoured and call their names in the dead person’s voice. Hunger and love are inextricably mixed, and the purest emotions of a person’s life become the greatest dangers to the ones they loved.

That’s what the mutant bear was; a mix of the most terrible and most sad. The scene grabbed me, and it’s mostly what I remember about the movie.

Generally, I thought the visuals were gorgeous and while some critics complain that the characters aren’t deeply developed, some of that is straight from the source material (in VanderMeer’s book the characters don’t even have names, just occupations). Yes, the fairly long ending did look like somebody’s idea of an acid trip, but it was a well done acid trip. As I left the cinema it’s that scene, with Shepherd’s voice crying “help me” out of the mouth of the beast that devoured her, that I remember of Annihilation.

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