Long-time readers of this blog will know that I’ve watched and reviewed a lot of terrible sci-fi movies. And, much as I enjoyed picking them to pieces, it saddened me that a genre I loved so much seemed to churn out so many duds. Forunately, the likes of The Martian and Pacific Rim kept me going, ensuring that I didn’t abandon sci-fi completely.
Enter Annihilation, the film adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s novel of the same name. Annihilation quietly landed on UK Netflix in March, and I soon picked up a positive vibe about it from both friends and Twitter. In due course, I gave it a go myself.
Biology professor and former US army soldier Lena has been grieving over her husband Kane since his mysterious disappearance a year ago. She’s just about ready to move on with her life when he suddenly turns up at their home. But when his health takes a turn for the worst, Lena and Kane are whisked off to a top secret military base. Lena finds out that Kane has been in The Shimmer, a region where the laws of physics themselves do not seem to apply. The Shimmer is slowly but inexorably expanding, and Kane is the only person who has ever returned from it alive. In due course, Lena finds herself joining a team of scientists on an expedition to investigate the heart of The Shimmer.
In many ways, Annihilation is standard sci-fi fare, with a touch of horror thrown in for good measure. The characters are fairly superficial, and cliché dialogue like “we’re all broken in some way” is delivered without a hint of irony. The explanation for The Shimmer works is unlikely to stand up to rigorous scrutiny, and the final scenes at the lighthouse make little sense.
Even so, the film still has a lot going for it. First off, it’s pretty enjoyable in its own right. There are some good effects, a few spine-chilling moments, and a decent balance of flashback and plot progression. Secondly, all five of the scientists are women. They aren’t there to be kidnapped princesses or femmes fatale; each one of them is a strong, capable person in her own right. One them happens to be a lesbian, and there’s no angst or big deal made out of this – she gets teased for hitting on every new woman she sees, and that’s it. The gender and sexuality of these characters isn’t fundamental to the plot in any way, and that’s great. It normalises the idea that women are actually fully conscious, sentient human beings, and it moves us that little bit further from the idea that the default human is a straight white man, and that there has to be some special reason for a person to be otherwise.
Annihilation may not be an outstanding film, but it’s a solidly enjoyable one. And if films like this can normalise the idea that women can play kick-ass leading roles, and just be people in their own right, then more power to them.