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Maybe I’ll always have this problem with Alex Garland movies: I like what they’re doing more than what they do with it. Which puts me in the minority of critics when it comes to Annihilation, his loose adaptation of a Nebula-winning novel by Jeff VanderMeer. (A.A. Dowd wrote our largely positive review, and we talked about our differences of opinion on this week’s Film Club.) The premise: A meteorite has struck a spot on the Florida coast, creating a gasoline-bubble-looking thing called “the Shimmer,” from which no expedition has successfully returned. The latest team to go in is mostly scientists, all women—including Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist with an Army background whose husband (Oscar Isaac) is the only person to ever come back from the Shimmer. So there’s some “Can you ever really know another person?” psycho-mystery to go with the scientific conundrum of the Shimmer—personal alienation plus an alien presence.
So let’s say that Annihilation is a film I enjoyed enough to be disappointed. (Ditto Ex Machina, which I think is a better movie than this one.) Garland employs some interesting visual strategies in foreshadowing the Shimmer as a warped, refracted reality in the earliest scenes: shots framed through a glass of water or hanging sheets of plastic, dialogue scenes with confusing eye-lines. Which is to say that he’s learned at least part of a very important lesson from the movie’s most obvious influence (noted in every review): the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. Annihilation’s plot has blatant parallels to Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker and its metaphysical setting, the Zone, a similarly abandoned area of alien-meteoritic origin. And the whole thing is swimming in Tarkovsky-isms: the wildly overgrown flora, the dilapidated houses half-submerged in standing water, the dripping-faucet pace of the dialogue, the dream sequences, the allegorically small cast (there are only eight speaking roles), the ambiguous final twist.
But Garland’s parting shot is more of a straightforward horror-movie mindfuck, rather than one of the master’s cosmic ironies or paradoxes. Tarkovsky’s filmmaking was always poetic in its ends. But both Stalker and the 1972 film Solaris—his other sci-fi classic, and an equally important reference point in Annihilation—are also master classes in teaching an audience how to watch a movie as it goes along. Although both are considered exemplars of the more philosophical side of the genre, they’re rarely discussed as models of genre storytelling.
Both Stalker and Solaris have extremely long preambles that frame the otherworldliness of everything that follows. The first 40 or so minutes of Stalker are in squalid, sepia-tinted black-and-white, switching into color Eastman Kodak stock as its three nameless main characters escape into the Zone on a rail speeder. Solaris, an even more notorious example, spends its languid first 45 minutes on Earth before the narrative jumps to a space station orbiting an enigmatic planet. There’s a subtler aesthetic fracture: Solaris’ Earthbound opening section was shot mostly on Soviet-made color stock, while the space-station-set bulk of the film is Kodak mixed with a bit of tinted black-and-white. (This was a creative solution for the scarcity of the Kodak stock; later, Tarkovsky’s preference for imported American film stocks nearly destroyed Stalker, as Soviet labs at first didn’t know how to properly develop the Kodak footage, which meant that most of the movie had to be reshot from scratch.)
Annihilation takes cues from this, too. The transition into the Shimmer includes a disorienting jump in time, and the wilderness inside is visually distinguished from the rest of the movie by violet lens flares and delicate chromatic aberrations that suggest light passing through a prism. (I’m not sure whether it’s a custom lens coating, a digital effect, or a combination of the two.) But the real secret of the Tarkovsky films is in their pace and contrast. The immediate threats of the oppressive, polluted, noirish world outside the Zone—with its security checkpoints and armed patrols—prepares us for the invisible threats that lie inside. The fact that little happens in Solaris’ Earthbound stretch intensifies the detective-story qualities of the film once it leaps into the mystery of the space station; the viewer’s attention span has effectively been tricked into approximating the point of view of Kris Kelvin, the ambiguously rational protagonist. In other words, they don’t address audience expectations so much as wait them out and then create new ones. It’s a luxury rarely available to Hollywood movies—even relatively eccentric ones like Annihilation.