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My 12 for ’18: “Annihilation” and Creating Something New…

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number one.

It’s not destroying. It’s making something new.

Rankings can be very revealing. They say a lot, both about wider culture, but also about the person who is making the list and the time at which the list is being made.

The best top tens inevitably reveal something about the time at which they were made. New Year’s Eve is a time for reflection, and a large part of the process of putting together these sorts of end-of-year lists is to reflect upon the year that has been. Any end-of-year top ten (or twelve) inevitably reveals something about how the person making that list experienced the previous twelve months. Whether consciously or not, every such list suggests a time capsule of the year, offering a snapshot of the general mood or even an outline of the zeitgeist.

A lot of the movies included in this list are examined through the lens of 2018, whether in terms of filmmaking, storytelling, or broader cultural concerns. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a superhero origin for a hyper-literate internet-raised generation. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was a meditation on how quickly and viciously anger can spread. A Quiet Place reflected trends in contemporary horror cinema at literalising the experience of watching a horror film, a “meta” mode of horror.

Annihilation does something very similar. Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel is a film that is about a strange phenomenon that warps and distorts the biology of anything that comes into contact with it. Those who wander into “the Shimmer” are lost, their sense of direction disturbed and they are promptly confronted with monstrosities that appear to be sewn together from a variety of familiar shapes, often bent and broken in unsettling ways. In this sense, Annihilation feels like a knowing commentary on popular culture in 2018.

There is a lot to unpack in Annihilation. The film is an extended science-fiction metaphor, an exploration of the act of living as a continuous process of self-destruction and reconstruction. The mere act of moving through the world, Annihilation suggests, is to become damaged and decayed. Interaction with the world involves entropy and erosion. From a certain perspective, every living thing is born dying. Whether physically or mentally, the mere process of existing weathers a person. If Freud is to be believed, people might even want to accelerate that process.

The characters in Annihilation are all self-destructive to varying degrees. Lena is implied to have taken the mission into “the Shimmer” as an act of atonement for her infidelity with Daniel, itself presented as an attempt to destroy Lena’s marriage to Kane. Ventress is suffering from cancer, her cells growing and mutating faster than her body can handle. Cass is dealing with the loss of her daughter, and implied to be suicidal. Anya is a recovering addict, itself a form of destruction of the self. Josie self-harms, and may have attempted suicide in the past.

However, Annihilation repeatedly suggests that the act of self-destruction is inexorably tied to the idea of becoming something new. It is a very universal metaphor, the idea that human beings are engaged in a constant process of destroying their old selves and creating new iterations and possibilities. This is literalised with the remains of earlier expeditions found during the trip. Often the bodies of these solders have been transformed into strange hybrid of plant and person. When Cass is savaged by a bear, she is also merged with it; her voice howls in the night.

However, “the Shimmer” also works as a metaphor for what writer and director Garland is doing with Annihilation. In fact, Annihilation is a film that seems to speak to the future of movie-making, even in terms of distribution. It was released theatrically by Paramount in the United States, but the international distribution rights were sold to Netflix. In its own strange way, even the distribution of Annihilation suggests a hybrid film, something that is neither one thing nor another.

The past couple of years have seen massive changes in the way that films are produced and distributed. Online service providers like Amazon and like Netflix are streaming original content to subscribers at an incredible rate. These are not small films, these are films that can compete on every single level with those released in cinemas. Manchester by the Sea earned a Best Picture nomination for Amazon by aggressively pursuing a theatrical release rather than prioritising the streaming service. However, the past year has seen things change.

Netflix has a genuine awards slate. There was an extended period towards the end of the year when Netflix was releasing one prestigious high profile release after another; Hold the Dark, Outlaw KingThe Other Side of the Wind, Roma. There is a very chance that Roma might secure a Best Picture nomination this year, and that Alfonso Cuarón might win Best Director. This is a black-and-white foreign language film released primarily through day-and-date streaming around the world.

In its own weird way, Annihilation is an illustration of how fluid the future of cinema might be. Annihilation had a theatrical release in the United States, but was a digital-first movie to the rest of the world. It is neither one thing, nor the other. It exists in limbo. Of course, the distribution of Annihilation is far from the most important thing about it. It just illustrates the extent to which the film is not any one thing, instead a bizarre hybrid of any number of different things blended into a single piece of cinema.

Although the metaphor that drives the film is distinctive, the structure of the film itself owes a lot to classic science-fiction cinema. In particular, many of the small ideas that comprise Annihilation are rooted in the history of science-fiction (and particularly cinematic science-fiction) as a genre. Many of the ideas that drive the plot are archetypal science-fiction storytelling devices, rather than specific references to particular films, but they still feel steeped in the history of the genre.

Science-fiction is full of badass military groups wading into situations that are beyond their comprehension; think Aliens or Predator. Similarly, genre fiction in general is packed with stories about military characters who have lost their minds after wading beyond the realm of sanity; Apocalypse Now is perhaps the most iconic example, but the reliance on video recordings of the unravelling platoon evokes something like Event Horizon. The notion of an alien object rapidly altering (and accelerating) evolution on Earth is a genre staple, most obviously in Evolution.

There are more specific references within the structuring and rhythms of Annihilation. Much has been made of the film’s similarities to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a classic piece of cinema in which a guide leads two explorers into a forbidden zone where the laws of reality have been bent by extraterrestrial contact. The final act of the film invites comparisons (that critics have been more than willing to make) to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The result of all of this is that Annihilation feels very much like a product of “the Shimmer.” It is a collection of disparate elements, each familiar and recognisable, thrown together and tossed like salad to create something with a unique flavour. Most of the individual ingredients in Annihilation are easy to identify, but they come together to create something distinctive. In the words of Lena, “It’s making something new.”

This is what makes Annihilation such a perfect distillation of where popular culture is in 2018. Modern popular culture is largely defined by familiarity and nostalgia. This is not just obvious in terms of blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War or Mission: Impossible – Fallout, it is reflected in all aspects of popular culture. A Star is Born is currently the Best Picture frontrunner, the fourth (or fifth) iteration of that classic tale. Widows is a remake of a British television miniseries. First Man is just the latest in a long series of movies about the American space programme.

Prestige television is dominated by remakes and reimaginings of older properties. Westworld is a sprawling existential epic that is largely inspired by a forgotten seventies science-fiction film. Fargo is an anthology series that takes its cues from the Coen Brothers’ movie of the same name. Damon Lindelof is currently working on an adaptation of (or sequel to) Watchmen that will most likely become a cornerstone of HBO’s broadcasting.

A huge of swathe of modern popular culture only exists in the context of and in conversation with what came before. Sherlock updates the iconic detective for the modern day. The Shape of Water is informed by classic Hollywood to the extent that it includes a blatant homage to The Red Shoes that exists for no greater purpose than to nod to the earlier film. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi arguably works better as a piece of criticism of Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi than as a film of itself.

None of this is inherently bad, to be clear. There is some cause for concern about how modern pop culture seems to be eating its own tail, perhaps most horrifying evoked in the nightmarish fever dream that was Terminator: Genisys. However, there is some value in the idea of building upon existing stories and shoring up a shared cultural framework, using existing iconography as a jumping off point in order to do something new or something interesting. If a film might be seen as a statement, modern pop culture seems willing to have a conversation.

So, for example, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is able to have conversations about the kind of people who get to be superheroes in blockbuster movies, informed by more than a half-a-century of Spider-Man stories and the better part of two decades of live-action adaptations of Peter Parker. A Quiet Place is able to engage with the idea of how audiences react to horror films, a trick that only really works if the audience is familiar with how horror movies work. BlacKkKlansman can dedicate a lot of its runtime to interrogating the power of cinema like Birth of a Nation.

Annihilation just literalises that idea, creating a film that feels like a product of “the Shimmer.” Garland understands that the bulk of pop culture in the modern era, one defined by media literacy and ease-of-access, is often engaging and reframing familiar elements. It is no longer enough to simply recycle old ideas. Instead, those ideas have to be combined and interrogated, thrown together and then deconstructed.

This is nothing as crass as complaining about the splurge of remakes and sequels and reboots that seem to define the modern blockbuster landscape. It is a much broader reflection on what might be described as “sampling” or “remix” culture, the idea of taking something old and something recognisable, and finding a way to use that to say something new and exciting and compelling.

The cliché response to this argument would be to insist that modern popular culture should try to say something new rather than repeating itself. This over-simplifies the matter. These films are saying something new and something interesting and something engaging. They are just drawing from the past in order to properly contextualise those arguments. The Last Jedi raises important questions about how we codify heroism in popular narratives, but it makes sense to contextualise that as a response to The Return of the Jedi.

“The Shimmer” is a potent metaphor for popular culture as it exists in 2018, something that is at once instantly familiar and also strangely alien. It feels appropriate that Annihilation should be a product of this cultural climate.

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