I just saw Annihilation, and I don't understand

There are many different ways to be confused by a movie. One way is when there is a twist, but you don’t quite catch it. I had this experience the first time I saw Donnie Darko: I knew at the end that the film had just been flipped on its head, but I needed to immediately re-watch the movie to piece together exactly how that happened.

Another kind of movie confusion is the kind I felt during, say, Game Night: confusion as to why a movie exists at all, because it is very bad. And another kind of confusion is the kind you feel when a movie is basically abstract and isn’t really trying to be about a singular concept, like The Tree of Life.

Annihilation is confusing, but not like any of these examples. It might be the simplest kind of movie confusion: the film is telling me something, but I’m literally not comprehending what it is trying to say.

I really do trust that director Alex Garland has something specific in his head that he is trying to say with Annihilation. His directorial debut, Ex Machina, was a sleek, chilling commentary on the future of artificial intelligence. It was a brilliant movie; it was also comprehensible. I loved it because it was beautiful and had complex moral questions on its mind; I was also able to understand those moral questions.

This was not the case with Annihilation, which is about a team of scientists who go to investigate some strange luminous barrier they dub “The Shimmer.” It might be about the human tendency toward self-destruction, or something. Or it could be about the environment?

Maybe it’s because I’m a liberal arts major. The five main characters are all scientists, and a lot of what Tessa Thompson (who has way too little to do in this movie) said about genetic refraction went way over my head. I’m fully open to the possibility that my not understanding Annihilation is more a commentary on my own intellect than the movie’s clarity. Or maybe I was distracted by the crying infant that a couple brought to this R-rated movie (!!!) at the theater where I saw Annihilation.

Except, I don’t think that’s fully it. I have a suspicion that other critics also don’t understand this movie, but enjoy Garland’s filmmaking prowess enough to look past it. For example, this Letterboxd review from The Florida Project director Sean Baker: “I really like this film. It's bold and beautiful. Color scheme and production design are top notch. Doesn't feel the need to answer every question.”

Baker says he enjoys Annihilation because it’s beautiful, and doesn’t answer ‘every’ question. He’s right about the first part: it’s beautiful. Garland is a talented director. But I’m not sure that it answers any questions, or even makes clear what the questions it’s asking are.

Or check out this review from IndieWire, one of the top-rated review of Annihilation on Metacritic: “‘Annihilation’ ends on a speculative note that invites more theories than firm conclusions, putting a marvelous cap on its eerie trajectory with a menacing implication: In the survival of the fittest, nature always wins.” This summary feels reductive to me, though: Garland’s script in Ex Machina an inventive blend of nature, man, machine, and the relationship among all three. To say that Annihilation is solely about the power of nature, especially with all the freaky stuff going on at the end that I won’t spoil here, feels like a guess, a statement made just to say something about the film. The review, after all, admits that Annihilation has more questions than answers, but never specifies what those questions are.

At the least, it’s an expert bit of filmmaking from a director whose next film I’m excited to see, regardless of what it is. And its confusion isn’t completely the worst kind: I don’t get it, but Annihilation was at least vaguely interesting enough that I’ll probably try to see it again. When I tell friends I saw Annihilation I won’t recommend they see it, but I might recommend they read about it, and that’s honestly a half-compliment.

Anyway, there’s a moment near the end of the film where Benedict Wong asks Natalie Portman if she can describe what she saw in The Shimmer. She says, bluntly, “no.” Same, Natalie Portman. I can’t describe what I just saw, either. But at least it was thrilling enough to make me want to revisit it and try again.

2.5 stars