Thoughts On: Annihilation - Refraction Chamber


Annihilation - Refraction Chamber

Thoughts On: Annihilation (2018)

A group of scientists and soldiers enter a growing zone that is swallowing and distorting anyone who enters.

Annihilation is not flawless, but it is damn ambitious - and for that, it has my respect. We'll start with the negatives because I think they weigh upon the film quite seriously. Firstly, structure. Having taken notes from the likes of the 50s version of the The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this has its main character called into a room and asked to tell her story.

Her story of how she got to the room is the point of the film and... boy. This is an old, tired and pretty bland trope. With classics such as Double Indemnity, this structural choice is key to the telling of the story.

In Double Indemnity, we see our main character sat at a desk, giving a confession, and so we know as we watch the film that everything is doomed. We are made to question where things will go wrong, how and why. Maybe the film would work better without this blunt foreshadowing, but I think the trope operates finely within Double Indemnity as it gives the narrative an element of drama and a tonal despair that it wouldn't be able to access by just letting things play through chronologically.

As with Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Annihilation has no real reason to use this trope. It thinks it needs to cut back and forward between present and past to give us exposition and to explain elements of the story before moving into zones of greater complexity, but, this is entirely unnecessary. And you know this to be starkly true because this structural trope destroys drama. How can we care about a character in danger if we know, for a fact, that they will make it out alive?

What the unimaginative structure of Annihilation does is cheapen the narrative meaning, quash dramatic intensity and allow the writer and director to lazily tell the story, leaning on dialogue as a form of exposition. And such brings us to the second point in the narrative: dialogue. The dialogue so often feels shaky, not only because it is over-written, but also because performances aren't too great. In many scenes, we are then given exchanges that are clearly meant to characterise, but just come off as plain awkward and far too technical. Again, the characters in the film are all highly intelligent and so very comfortable with certain terminology, but the way it enters conversation is rather grating. Added to this, there are minor characters who all feel like they're trying to put on a great performance - and they're not. They then draw a lot of attention to their hands. Their movements are a little exaggerated and their blocking is a bit too blunt. In essence, the combination of performance and script gives rise to a tonal disharmony; you feel as if everything has been written, practised and performed. This is especially true with some of the minor characters.

This leads onto one of the last negatives of the film. As much as this film is ballsy in concept, it is also trying to subvert tropes around the 'unknown' or 'forbidden zone' sci-fi film. Reminiscent of Stalker, Arrival, 2001, Close Encounters, the Alien films, and a plethora more mediocre films that don't come to mind, Annihilation is about a place where weird things happen. Our figures will have to venture into this place. What we usually have going into these places are the military, scientists, astronauts or figures alike. This is, of course, because they have technical expertise and will double as adventurers. However, these figures are almost always men. Annihilation reverses this trope, sending a group of women into the zone. I have no qualm with this at all, and this is actually integrated into the narrative subtext in a way that entirely self-justifying. However, you can feel the weight of this choice quite continuously. You then never feel an ease about the way things are. Of course, this is a mystery, sci-fi adventure and so you're not suppose to feel comfortable, but, from a writer's stance, there is never an ease about why this choice was made. And this is mostly a structural problem. There are many scenes where characters are trying to justify why there going on the journey, and these are inserted into the narrative in a way that is seemingly trying to brace us for what is to come. What's more, characters seem to be set up to be one way, a lecturer and a wife, only to be revealed as something else - also a soldier. I've never liked these kind of reveals; they're too confrontational and kitschy. So, again, at the wrong level of narrative construction, Annihilation feels contrived and uneasy. Compare this to the likes of Alien, which also subverts trope, and you will find that the set of characters are all at ease within the narrative and within a given setting; the writer and director put them there without qualms. Such seems to be the opposite with Annihilation.

Other than the fact that this feels a little off, is structurally unsound and is lacking in terms of performances and writing, Annihilation has problems with its CGI, cinematography and action. The film simply doesn't look great and there are a few scenes that are dumb. (If a giant-ass mutant crocodile attacks you, it ain't gonna rip at your backpack, and it ain't gonna let go. Just scream your goodbyes as it death-rolls your limbs off and drowns you in blood and terror). But, beyond this, Annihilation is a pretty awesome movie. I mention these faults first and have delved into them to such a depth because they hang over all that is good in the film. These faults then make me very cautious about praising this film. I have seen some declare that this is a masterpiece, or at the very least, have sold it a little too hard. I, on the other hand, love that it is trying to do something ambitious, but also see weakness in the director and writer. They haven't gone all the way. Watch Stalker, watch 2001, and you will know what a masterpiece looks like and functions as. Annihilation needs many issues to be resolved before approaching this realm. Cut out the exposition, cut out the structural nonsense, and all disharmony around character and situation would dissolve. We would be confused as we watched the narrative unfold, but I believe, if scenes were better written and performed, we would follow attentively and the ambiguity and final meaning of the film would not be cheapened as it has been.

Moving onto what Annihilation does well, it has to be said that its strongest attributes lie in characterisation and the building of narrative meaning. My noting of characterisation may seem contradictory, but, whilst I think that there is a bit too much exposition around characters and also an awkwardness in the way in which they are situated in the story, they are all drawn up as individuals, rounded, faulted and human. It cannot be denied that much has gone into not just distinguishing and figuring out who all of these characters are, but relating this to the general meaning of the movie.

And here we get to jump into what makes this movie so notable and worth watching. Annihilation is about the world seen through a glass cup, half full, half empty. Look at the above image - an image we see across the narrative - and you will know what this movie is about.

As I remember from the physics class that I failed and had to drop, refraction is a phenomena of distortion; waves such as beams of light or radio emissions bending when they pass through substances of varying density before they reach the eye. As the image above demonstrates, when you look at something through a glass cup full of water, the background will be flipped and bent. You can do this mini-experiment right now. Just grab a glass of water and hold your finger behind it. If you wave your finger in from the right, it will appear in the glass from the left. You'd need a bunch of maths to explain why this works precisely, but the simple explanation lies in the fact that curved glass and water bend light. Glass and water are more dense than air, and so light waves slow down as they pass from one medium to another. Because they enter from an angle, they don't just slow down, but are forced to turn slightly. Think about riding a bike across wet mud. If you turn a corner carefully, you will turn normally. However, if you turn and pull your back break hard, the bike will kick out and you will skid. Because you are turning (changing the direction of your momentum) and slowing down, the rate of turning will be exaggerated, and thus your line through a corner bends outwards. The same is kinda true with light (I think). Hence...

This image is primarily a metaphor, but understanding the image as a scientific phenomena allows you to understand the film more generally. This is because the zone which characters venture into is described as a prism of refraction. This explains why so many things mutate and go strange. Not only does light seem to bend in this place - which is why it shimmers - but so does time and human genetics. Louis de Broglie had a magical equation, that I never understood, which proved that everything, including you as you sit and read this, has a wavelength - which would, pseudo-scientifically, explain why human genetics refract in the shimmer zone. The metaphor utilised here, however, is far more clearer than the convolution of science.

The characters go into this zone with specific lives and certain perspectives. By entering into the giant refractory chamber, they see themselves and their perceptions twisted and bent like light travelling through a glass cup. We, who get to look at their lives from one side of the cup, see reflections of characters that are backwards and distorted, but nonetheless true. The main question that we must attach to our main character as to understand her is two-part and simple: Am I a good person; am I a good partner? The shimmer zone will reveal the truth by twisting and pulling at her psyche and image. We watch through the half-full, or half-empty, glass. Is her change positive, is it negative? Is who she is understandable, too disagreeable? Is her relationship worth saving? Is there any hope or reason in the journey she takes? Does she change for good? Who is it that she emerges as?

Because you can watch this on Netflix right now, I don't want to delve into spoilers. I want to end with a strong recommendation and with things in your hands. Have you seen Annihilation? What do you think of everything we've talked about today?

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