Preconceptions Annihilated

(This post was delayed by several hours due to web server issues.)

My roommate and friend, elegy nevermore, and I literally just finished watching the film Annihilation and I’m going to simply sum up the experience as saying I’m beautifully confused.

You see, this is a very sci-fi film but it’s not your usual shoot ’em up. Following in the scientific genes of Contact, from twenty years ago, Annihilation is more an exploratory film than one that answers questions. As such, there are no clear answers in its ending, which both impresses and perplexes me. From a writer’s perspective, it’s very easy to slap an ending on a film (or book) and let people argue over whether the whole thing was good or bad as a result. Gift wrapping an ending, one with a clear ending, is almost all Hollywood knows how to do these days. The avant garde pose questions for which even they struggle to answer, which beg for discussion to truly understand, and it is in this category that Annihilation falls.

To be clear, in my spoiler dominant tradition, this film doesn’t have an ending that will resolve anything. You will leave the theater asking yourself if Natalie Portman’s character is the original that started the film, the alien copy, both, or something completely fucking new. If you leave the theater with a clear decisive answer, you weren’t paying attention.

The most horrible realization about this movie for me isn’t the slow pace, the acting (which is great), the vague choose your own ending conclusion, the way it was edited, or anything else with regards to Annihilation itself. It’s the fact that it’s being murdered in cold blood by the juggernaut that is Black Panther, and will not get the kind of attention I feel it deserves. When word gets out about the ending, this film is just plain done. Which is a damned shame.

Hollywood doesn’t like to take chances on films, especially the ones that are more daring to do something different. The studios would rather invest in sequels to known moneymakers, remakes, and reboots than take a chance on something new. Every now and then, something manages to sneak through their filter, something original that captures the intellect as well as the eye, something that challenges the preconceived notions the viewer has of the film… Art instead of the cookie cutter, mass produced film whose plot really doesn’t matter in the end. Annihilation is every inch that piece of art, and it’s a fucking shame the studios chose to schedule it against another great film — and Black Panther really is a great film — during the last weeks of winter to release. This should have been a late spring or early fall release, when it could’ve been the spectacle that would draw crowds to the theater.

But I get it. Black Panther was probably expected to die a quick and quiet death since it features a mostly black cast and is about a black superhero. So the studio targeted it with Annihilation and is getting its ass kicked for its trouble. Or at least, this is my suspicion.

Whatever the truth may be in this matter, Annihilation is a film that deserves to be seen. It’s intelligent, well acted, lead by a strong cast that happens to be mostly female, the characters are flawed and well rounded, and fundamentally, there’s no villain to be defeated, just an event that needs to be understood. Annihilation is this year’s The Arrival, and a spiritual successor to Contact. It deserves so much more than it will likely get in the theater.

Review: I Am Number Four

I saw I Am Number Four on Thursday, when I was in a really bad mood, so take some of the things I say here with a grain of salt. That said, it was a decent movie, with good special effects, and well acted. The thing I liked best about it was that I personally didn’t know of any of the actors in the film. That’s not to say they’re unknowns, I just didn’t know them. I love the big name stars as much as anyone, but they can’t and shouldn’t be in everything, and I was pleased that they weren’t here. That said, the lack of big names is probably the reason this movie isn’t doing as well as it probably should. I’ve only seen a handful of commercials for it since its release a week ago, and the only reasons I watched it were because I remembered something vaguely interesting from the trailer I saw months ago, and it was starting shortly after I got to the theater.

Given what Wikipedia has to say about the film and the book it was based on, I’m no longer surprised by the faults I had with the film. The basic story is that 18 aliens from the world of Lorien came to Earth as their world was attacked by another alien race called the Mogadorians. Half of the Loriens were special children, gifted with special powers called “legacies”, each sent with a guardian to protect them. The goal was that they would be sent to Earth to be raised and taught how to fight back so that they could one day rescue their world, but apparently by the time the film starts things have gone worse than they imagined. The Mogadorians, or Mogs as they’re frequently called in the film, apparently have either completely wiped out their world, or are well on their way to doing such, and have followed the 18 to Earth to finish the job. In fact, before the film even starts, two of the children, and at least three of the guardians have been killed by the Mogs. The film opens with the death of Number 3 and his guardian.

Immediately afterwards we meet Number 4, known to humanity as John Smith. My first, irritated, impression of him was that he was a typical privileged  white kid, living the dream life in a tropical area, just like every one of us would do if we could afford to do so. His good life is interrupted by the a glowing and burning light that erupts from his leg, after Number 3 is killed, while he’s at a party on a beach at night. Needless to say, he and his guardian had to immediately uproot themselves and leave for less green pastures and anonymity in Paradise, Ohio. Thankfully, his guardian is a grumpy, pragmatic and practical man by the name of Henri, which slowly began to make me appreciate the characters and the actors cast to play them.

I’m not going to go any further with the plot, because it’s too simplistic and cliche to require further explanation, and that is my chief problem with the film. Everything in it’s been done before, and been done better. Everything from the revelations of who the characters are to the fight scenes has been done before and little in the film is unique or inspiring. The fight scenes would be right at home in the X-Men or Fantastic Four movies. There are “I Want To Believe” posters in a conspiracy theory organizations’ house/hideout straight out of the X-Files. The secrets to finding the other Loriens is in the hands of a missing man that will probably turn out to have betrayed them in the books or a later film. There’s even predictable and cliche high school angst and pranks. None of this is original and there was no interesting spin put on them to keep me interested while they paraded around in front of me. Don’t get me wrong, these things weren’t bad, they just weren’t special. There was a point I felt I could get up and walk out of the movie and still know exactly how everything would end.

The problem with most teen oriented books and movies is that they reproduce the popular thing of the moment, and rarely do anything completely original. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, while mostly an exception to that rule, gives in to it here and there becoming a teen romance novel briefly instead of a fantasy novel. I Am Number Four clearly focused on being that thing, and as such failed to fully work out the setup of the story. For instance, John clearly knows at the start of the film that he’s not human and that he’s from another world, but he seems to only have a limited knowledge of his people and of his own uniqueness. Henri had to explain to him why he had light shooting out of his hands and how to control it at one point in the movie. If he was from an alien world and he and his fellows were destined to save the planet, shouldn’t he have known how and why they were selected to do so? Otherwise why shouldn’t it have been some other individuals? Similarly, the “legacies” should have had a history on their home-world that would have been carried through legend if not documented fact, so he should have been quite aware of his potential, even if he was only just discovering it. Finally on this point, how could he be properly trained and prepared to save anyone without knowing anything about these legacy powers?

What made John and the other eight so special that the Mags had to hunt them down and eliminate them after conquering their world and wiping out the population? Well, we don’t find out in this movie, and probably will never see an answer in a sequel to this movie because I doubt that there will be a sequel. The book series may or may not have continued, and so the answer may be there, but the marketing support for the film isn’t sufficient enough to keep the movie in the awareness of movie goers, and therefore likely will not net enough revenue to warrant a sequel.

The movie has problems because, I suspect, the underlying story has problems but in truth I’ve seen far worse films than I Am Number Four. Would I pay money to see it again? No, not likely, but I wouldn’t change the channel if I came across it on TV. Review score would be 7 out of 10.