by John Holbo on March 13, 2018

Belle and I are watching Annihilation on Netflix. We are about 50 minutes in. This just makes no sense. These people. But maybe it’s worth watching until the end? What do you think?

Take my survey!

Or leave a comment.

(I understand the book was better.)

UPDATE: the Plain People of the Internet have spoken. I guess we’ll watch the rest a bit later. (We did other stuff last night.) The main problem with the film, in a nutshell, is that you have a small group of scientists going into this mysterious area, the Shimmer. Everything they know indicates that their safety measures are ludicrously insufficient. They aren’t wearing hazmat suits even though they have every reason to expect radiation or poisonous atmosphere or environment. They are not soldiers, but they are armed. They are all neurotic loners (who else would volunteer for this mission? But there’s limits to the ‘send in people who don’t have a lot of close family’ strategy.) The result is that their actions and reactions, in the Shimmer, aren’t interesting, since they consistently mismatch the situation. There’s a fine line between surreal and stupid, and the film is not managing to keep its small team of scientists on the former side of the divide, in this weird place.

Should I watch Annihilation?



John Holbo 03.13.18 at 9:29 am

We’re eating dinner. So I’ll check back in a couple hours. I was thinking of playing some guitar, doing some drawing, after dinner. It could be hours. Your response matters.


Layman 03.13.18 at 10:00 am

I haven’t seen the movie, but: I thought the book was OK but basically unfilmable, and what I’ve read about the film makes me think they didn’t try.


J-D 03.13.18 at 10:01 am

‘The film … follows a group of military scientists …’

Well, that’s where you lose me; à chacun son goût.


Belle Waring 03.13.18 at 11:22 am

Why do you hate science, J-D?


George de Verges 03.13.18 at 11:24 am

All the alternatives you mentioned seem so much more interesting.


JFA 03.13.18 at 11:45 am

That’s how I felt about the book.


John Holbo 03.13.18 at 12:02 pm

So far survey results say yes but there’s a lot of uncertainty.


Dave Maier 03.13.18 at 12:21 pm

I’m 2/3 of the way through the book, and I agree with Layman. The Portman casting does not inspire confidence, for one.


steven t johnson 03.13.18 at 12:23 pm

The secret of the movie is really very simple I think: People are alienated, always, everywhere. The vastation is the inner alien coming out as the outer alien. The inscrutability of the alien reflects the inscrutability of the alienated. You can’t really tell the difference, which is the frisson the movie aims for. Unfriendly eyes might see this as a slur on humanity, but isn’t respect for humanity vanity disguised as virtue? For the properly literary, I mean?

But then, I tried reading a book of Vandermeer short stories, and they all seemed to be literary genre stories, undistinguished by anything except the graceful march of words. (The genres appeared to be “shit happens,” and “shit happens, then you die.”) So what do I know?


Faustusnotes 03.13.18 at 12:39 pm

I watched it last night. Very disappointing. The usual shtick where stupid Americans make stupid decisions (why did they leave the tower when they heard a noise?!), pseudo science babble, and a plot by the bad guy that relies on a ridiculous series of coincidences in which the good guys do exactly what it wants even though the choices it wants them to make are extremely unlikely. And a very uninteresting open ending. Also the special effects weren’t engaging and the monsters not scary.

Weak sauce…


Matt 03.13.18 at 1:19 pm

I’d never heard of it until reading the wikipedia bit, but… it sounds like a sort of crappy remake/stealing of Tarkovsky’s _Stalker_. Maybe better to just watch that?


John Holbo 03.13.18 at 1:23 pm

“I’d never heard of it until reading the wikipedia bit, but… it sounds like a sort of crappy remake/stealing of Tarkovsky’s _Stalker_. Maybe better to just watch that?”

It is like Stalker. But I like other stuff by Jeff VanderMeer so I trust his trilogy – which won some awards – is better than this film based on the first installment in it.


Eric 03.13.18 at 1:58 pm

The novel is outstanding. The film, as someone suggested above, basically doesn’t try to adapt it, to the point of doing active violence against both the character of the protagonist and the ecological/metaphysical gist of the novel and trilogy as a whole. Deeply disappointing adaptation.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 03.13.18 at 2:41 pm

I “enjoyed” the novel, although I never finished the trilogy, but you would have me in a very tight spot if you ask me what it was about. Apart from a feeling of terrible dread when reality seems to be crumbling and some force you cant understand or see seems to be changing everything, including you.

For what I gather the movie took 2 or 3 ideas and situations and ran in another direction?


Jesús Couto Fandiño 03.13.18 at 2:43 pm

And I put “” in enjoyed because it is very disturbing and creepy at an intelectual level so it is that kind of “fun”.

Part of it is, IMHO, similar to Solaris (the book), in the sense of spending enormous effort and risk to try to understand something that may very well lie outside human comprehension.


SusanC 03.13.18 at 3:05 pm

I’ve only seen the trailer so far, but the trailer makes it look like it could be good … basically Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Solaris redone with female lead characters. If Annihilation turns out not to be that movie, then someone ought to make it,


Ivo 03.13.18 at 3:43 pm

Reviews vary wildly, which is usually a good sign. I thought the book was enjoyable. It also gave me the unmoored feeling I most associate with reading The Trial. Haven’t seen the movie, but don’t see how you can slowly build up tension and cause that unmooring with a fairly traditional screenplay format, in a traditional timeframe.


Matt McKeon 03.13.18 at 3:47 pm

I liked the trilogy so much, I’ve got to see this. Of course I liked Solaris too. Sorry to hear it isn’t good.


L2P 03.13.18 at 3:50 pm

I get unreasonably annoyed when people say “This is a bad remake of X.” Annihilation is “like” Stalker, in the same sense that it’s also “like” a lot of movies (“like,” say, Solaris, Alien, Forbidden Planet, and even non-speculative movies like Treasure of the Sierra Madre where the basic plot is “exploring the unknown where there’s danger, opportunity and betrayal on tap” sorts of movies). But Annihilation is very different from Stalker in a host of ways that aren’t worth getting into (it’s not a 70’s-era minimalist Russian movie and passes the Bechtel test, among other things).

Don’t avoid Annihilation because it’s “like” Stalker. It’s a perfectly fine alien encountery movie. It’s different from the book in lots of important ways, and different from Stalker for lots of even more important ways. If you’re going to be annoyed because people make bad choices you wouldn’t have made, you wouldn’t like the books either because they’re full of people making bad choices you wouldn’t have made. (Aside and kind of a spoiler – IMHO one of the better parts of these books is that characters acknowledge how terrible their choices were and I’d argue that’s just reflected in the movie).


Donald Johnson 03.13.18 at 3:51 pm

I read the trilogy but haven’t seen the film.

I liked the first volume of the trilogy, but then it fell apart. For me anyway. There was too much time spent on a not very interesting or likeable character.

Lovecraft did this sort of thing best at novella length. I think writing about incomprehensible superhuman and possibly malevolent intelligences is difficult to pull off if you go on for too long.


novakant 03.13.18 at 4:33 pm

I’m intrigued – reviews are are very mixed and I loved “The Beach” (even the film).

Btw, similar review pattern for “Three Billboards…” – has anybody seen it?


Brett 03.13.18 at 4:45 pm

I guess I just didn’t really get the meaning of it, although I enjoyed the film. It’s one of those things where the premise doesn’t seem as deep when you state it baldly – “What if a . . . thing fell to Earth, created an expanding area of strangeness where genes get crossed and you have animals with flowers for antlers, etc?”.


Pirate Laddie 03.13.18 at 5:12 pm

Finish the flic — it didn’t do anything for me or my wife, but we both were able to walk out of the theater (“walking wounded”?) unassisted. Kinda figure it was payback for ‘The Shape of Water.’


J-D 03.13.18 at 6:36 pm

Why do you hate science, J-D?

Why does Hollywood hate science, but love the military?


Mr Spoon 03.13.18 at 7:56 pm

I haven’t read the novel (but I’ll track it down now). I thought the movie was a pretty good serve of Western visual horror and all the tropes that sail in her. I like Portman. I liked the character bonding. I loved the visuals, or the implications of the visuals. I chose to interpret the technobabble through the lens of Roadside Picnic rather than Star Trek. Would watch again.


Faustusnotes 03.13.18 at 10:20 pm

People making stupid choices I wouldn’t have doesn’t piss me off per se (see eg a simple plan for a movie that works well entirely around this premise). It pisses me off because it’s a routine part of modern American cinema and it is done as a lazy way to move the plot along, and it shows a lack of intention to clear up and simplify plot. If you want one of the party to be eaten by a magic bear, have them sleep downstairs in a base with no tower options, and have one person on watch. Especially if the magic bear can mimic sounds. Don’t put them in a tower for safety and then bring them down to be eaten. This is classic modern Hollywood – go out of your way to establish plot point a then immediately go out of your way to undermine plot point a in order to move the story along. Just don’t bother with plot point a if you’re going to use lazy stupid writing to immediately work around it.

The other American cinema thing I hate is people not communicating basic info, another fault with this movie. At two points a camera is set up by a past team to film important information, and instead of providing important information the team give cryptic bullshit. The first scene was particularly egregious for this. Again, it’s lazy. I’m sick of being insulted by dumb movie directors who think I will be satisfied by their lazy writing.


Layman 03.13.18 at 11:16 pm

Oddly,only one character in the book was military or ex-military. And this character was more or less inconsequential to the plot. There was only one military weapon, ffs. Why the filmmakers decided to make it a military expedition is incomprehensible.


J-D 03.13.18 at 11:33 pm

Sounds as if you’re talking about this?


Faustusnotes 03.14.18 at 2:22 am

Correction to John’s update: strictly speaking one was military, and her history is ludicrous. She had 7 years in the army, then 7 years to get a PhD, and now she’s a professor. So she should be at least 45 years old but she’s only Portman’s age. This kind of shit is just unnecessarily annoying. Make her a grad student, she would be the right age and her reasons for going into the shimmer wouldn’t change an iota. Dumb dumb dumb.


John Holbo 03.14.18 at 4:29 am

“Why the filmmakers decided to make it a military expedition is incomprehensible.”

The problem is really that it would be easily fixable, in story terms. You have them all tethered and hazmatted and armed and all that. Have the initial plan be something sensible. 1 minute in. Take readings. Out. And then it all goes wrong. They wake up, it’s three days later. Their hazmat suits are gone. Fine. Now they have to deal. By just having them waltz in, unprepared, you destroy the possibility of contrast between the situation when they hope they have a plan and the situation in which they realize everything has radically slid sideways and hope is not a plan.

Faustus is right that one is ex-military But, as he admits, the point remains the same. The army might send in armed teams. The army might send in unarmed researchers (in a different situation.) There is never going to be a case in which the army sends a bunch of fairly heavily armed, non-army, non-arms-trained personnel.


Faustusnotes 03.14.18 at 10:33 am

The other reason they’re military of course is that everything in the us is militarized now. I’ve no doubt that if ghostbusters was first conceived in 2015 at least one but probably all of them would be ex special forces. People in us movies now tote heavy weaonry around everywhere at all times because the society that conceived these shows can’t think of anything else.


Cian 03.14.18 at 1:41 pm

Not seen the movie, but the trilogy was very good. In the books the expedition is just the latest of many, and the suggestion is that volunteers are typically in some way self-destructive (something the agency responsible, which is not the military, takes advantage of).


Sebastian H 03.14.18 at 4:27 pm

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but in the book the reason they don’t use hazmat suits makes sense, but is hugely spoilerific so I can’t say now.


casmilus 03.14.18 at 5:44 pm

Why can’t we just have a straight adaptation of “Roadside Picnic”? ie not directed by Tarkovsky?


Layman 03.14.18 at 5:54 pm

Indeed, lots of reasons for the setup in the first book have to do with the experience of prior expeditions. And lots of reasons are mysterious to the narrator, thus mysterious to the reader. It is a riff on the unreliable narrator, except it is not so much that the narrator is dishonest as it is the narrator has been lied to about a number of consequential things. I haven’t read the second or third book, but probably will, if only because I’m curious to know more about the backstory. But I’m guessing the film is irrelevant to that, since it appears to be a completely different story.


Layman 03.14.18 at 5:58 pm

JH: “There is never going to be a case in which the army sends a bunch of fairly heavily armed, non-army, non-arms-trained personnel.”

In the book, there was only one automatic rifle, for use by the one trained ex-military person. The rest of the weapons were handguns, and all of the weapons were meant to be kept locked up unless the leader decided they needed to be carried. So I don’t think the book makes the mistake the movie makes. There’s still the open question of why send this particular group of people in this way, for what purpose, but that’s actually the core mystery of the book.


anonymousse 03.14.18 at 7:44 pm

Uhm, all the protagonists are women. Isn’t that reason enough?

Sometimes fighting the patriarchy requires sacrifice.


Belle Waring 03.15.18 at 4:16 am

Wellll, so we watched the rest of the movie. [SPOILERS]. The creepiest thing was the bear which could talk with the voices of its victims, whose final conscious moments were perhaps trapped inside. This would be cooler if it weren’t ripped wholesale from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (Claw of the Conciliator, I think). A bear-thing eats the whole family of a young child traveling with Severian, and then the voices of the family plead with the child to be eaten as well, claiming they are happier and should be all together–it’s unclear whether they are, in any meaningful sense, inside the creature or whether it is just mimicking them. So that.

I remained annoyed by anyone’s inability to take even marginal precautions in an infinitely hostile environment, down to Portman’s character, at the end, leaving her pack on the sand below the high-tide line before heading to the lighthouse. She has a plan to get out that involves staying alive, why not take food!? They eat in Solaris, for crying out loud! And then, finally, the creature mirroring her actions has been faster than her all along, enough to concuss her against the door; why is it suddenly so much slower as to stand, helpless with the phosphorus grenade, while Portman’s character runs out the door? In short, no. I mean, I guess she and not-Kane will have a creepy shimmer baby now, that’s nice for them, but I don’t really care.

Pros: good use of CSN song while talking about cell doubling all the time (and in one scene reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)
“They are one person
They are two alone
They are three together
They are for each other”
OK, noice.
Cons: vide supra
Having said which, if I thought Solaris was like the George Clooney movie (which was DUMB because it was like a re-make of the Tarkovsky when they could have made a straight film adaptation of the book, and we have the CGI to make the ocean structures now and we failed to take advantage of this and now no one will make a new Solaris movie and everything is horrible) I would be deeply wrong so maybe I’ll read the book instead.


Belle Waring 03.15.18 at 5:11 am

Oh, further pro: all women exploration crew (even if we have to hear how each of them is damaged and stumbling towards self-destruction.)


pnee 03.15.18 at 2:37 pm

Not to defend the movie on this point too much but:

It’s pretty clear they have tried multiple teams with all sorts of equipment and nothing has worked. This team is pretty much a last ditch effort. One of the theories is that the teams end up killing each other. So sending in a team where most of the participants don’t have military training is, I think, an attempt to mitigate against that. I don’t remember if it’s implied or stated that a team composed of all women is also intended to mitigate against the team violently turning against one another.

I enjoyed it as a visual spectacle, and a bit of weirdness, at times very effective at being beautiful, and at time very effective at being horrifying. The science makes no real sense. Even the “prism” metaphor doesn’t really work, as refraction is quite an orderly process, not really a chaotic scrambling. Unusually for me, I was able to let that go easily and enjoy the film on its own terms.


John Holbo 03.15.18 at 3:01 pm

“One of the theories is that the teams end up killing each other. So sending in a team where most of the participants don’t have military training is, I think, an attempt to mitigate against that.”

Sending in untrained people – still with heavy weapons! – does not seem like a good way to mitigate against that.

“I enjoyed it as a visual spectacle, and a bit of weirdness”

The purple was good. I watched the rest. It had a lot of potential and it managed some creepiness. It just seemed eminently fixable to me. I get that the novel might be unadaptable, or challenging. But this screenplay was full of easy to correct problems!

But I didn’t end up hating it.


Dave Maier 03.15.18 at 4:44 pm

Re: Belle’s gripes about Soderbergh’s Solaris –

FWIW, Soderbergh claims that his film was indeed a new film adaptation of the book, and not a “remake” of the Tarkovsky film. I agree about the lack of CGI ocean structures (as described so memorably in the book) and that this means that we won’t get another movie at least for a while. But I did enjoy the film, thanks in great part to one of Cliff Martinez’s best soundtracks, and it would be wrong to dismiss it as just another ridiculous Hollywood remake along the lines of e.g. City of Angels (= Wings of Desire, ffs, what were they thinking) or Breathless. I’d say it’s more along the lines of Let Me In, which was perfectly okay if also redundant. Nor, I think, should we dismiss Annihilation (which I have not seen) *simply* because it’s not Stalker (which I am not accusing anyone here of doing btw).

Also, I think you guys should read Annihilation now. It’s not that long, just do it.


Faustusnotes 03.15.18 at 11:10 pm

I also noticed the bear was straight out of gene Wolfe, and like belle I got super pissed about the pack abandoned on the beach. It bothered me all through the final confrontation. Which was stupid, badly done, amateur-hour theatrics. Did Portman feel like she was channeling her acting school pretentiousness doing the dumb-arsed mirror thing? And why oh why did the mirror break at the end with the dumb phosphorus grenade thing? Perhaps the mirror allowed itself to be killed in which case wtf? And how exactly did it infect Portman’s character at the end?? Poor execution!

If you want to watch an all female team in survival horror, the descent is a way better option!


Gabriel 03.17.18 at 12:58 pm

I liked the three monster-y bits; all were quite effective. The rest of the movie is painfully stupid. Absolutely no one ever displays a modicum of sense, no decisions are made that would be made by the equivalent Real Life Person, the dialogue trends awkward and on-the-nose, and the technically-skilled but very flat direction eliminates the possibility of reading the inanity as something simply dreamlike and visionary.

The book, however, has its own problems. The hypnosis schtick, the conceit that the text is a ‘lab notebook’…

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