Since its release early last year, the dialogue surrounding Alex Garland’s science-fiction masterpiece Annihilation has involved everything from its cinematographic references to its larger themes and mind-boggling ending. It’s also a genuinely strong film, one with great writing, performances, and stunning visuals — all of which were snubbed by the Academy.
But this is far from the last we’ll hear of Annihilation. Fans like me haven’t stopped thinking about it, as evidenced by a recent video essay by Michael Tucker of Lessons from the Screenplay. Looking at character design and the location of the Shimmer, Tucker discusses how Garland’s screenplay weaves its biological and existential concepts into a narrative. Watch it below.
The video’s analysis culminates in reading into the film’s captivating final 20 minutes. Using the presence of what Garland calls “an alien alien” as a jumping off point, Tucker examines how the sequence is a striking visualization of the components of human nature — duplication, mutation, and self-destruction — the film plays with throughout. Ultimately, Tucker says, Annihilation is a film that operates as an exploration of an idea. Garland uses the science fiction genre as an opportunity to embody its theme of human’s self-destructive tendencies throughout the story.
Of course, not everyone loved Annihilation. In their video essay, Jonah Koslofsky and Nick Arroyo discuss their frustration with not liking the film more despite all it has to offer. They posit that the film is about whether or not two changing people can stay together, as well as a commentary on change in general seen through its characters. Despite what they call “fascinating ambitions,” it is the nonlinear structure that makes the difference between a film they like and one they admire. Watch that one here:
Even though it wasn’t a universally praised film, it is undeniable that Garland’s screenplay is a feat of an adaptation. These two interpretations of the film join many others, all of which are substantiated by the film’s content and could be “correct.” Of course, there’s not one “correct” answer to this film; it’s a web of details that lead to what seems like a million possible “right” responses. Even though it’s not “Oscar-nominee Annihilation,” the film’s ability to make people think about what they watched, what it meant, and want to start conversations about it all is a triumph all the same.
Unfortunately, getting the film as we know it came with a cost. After its poor test screenings, Garland was given notes to make the main character Lena more sympathetic and to make some changes to the ambiguous ending. In the end, Garland got to keep his film his way, but Paramount transferred international distribution to Netflix, where it was unceremoniously dumped. We’ll never know what a box office boost from an international theatrical release might have done for the film, its traction, and its possible awards opportunities.
But if that’s what keeps a marvel like Annihilation from receiving awards attention, so be it. We shouldn’t accept that films must be easy, not if this belief has the potential to stifle stimulating conversations like those surrounding this film. It’s the films that take risks that have the greatest reward. I’m thinking of anything from the 2001: A Space Odysseys to the Killing of a Sacred Deers we’ve watched over the years.
In another video essay, Scott Tafoya celebrates Annihilation as a film that evades an easy answer because it is, among many other things, about the pitfalls of trying to make art align with one’s beliefs. Though he is upset by the (lack of) distribution of the film, Tafoya says it will outlast this moment as we continually return to its themes, ideas, and images. Watch below.
It’s the very fact that Annihilation wasn’t an easy film that’s kept us thinking about and discussing it, and that’s what keeps a film alive. As a wholehearted defender of the genius that is Alex Garland, I have to admit I’m a little sad that the Academy didn’t recognize Annihilation outside of its original score shortlist. But watching videos like the three above reminds me that films don’t exist for awards, they’re here for audiences to enjoy and appreciate.
Complex films like Annihilation aren’t guaranteed to be liked or to get awards, but, whichever way your opinion on it skews, it’s an example that shows appreciating a film is sometimes even more rewarding than liking it. It’s a film that will live on without Oscars, one that will be remembered for the brilliance of Garland’s screenplay, what it all means, and those mystifying last 20 minutes.