How to annihilate an audience
I’m unwilling to join the chorus of disapproval of ANNIHILATION (2018, Alex Garland) for the sake of it. Making films is very difficult, and making good films is a lot harder. But the problems with Annihilation are writ large in the screenplay, and the screenplay was, we are told, written by the film’s director: Alex Garland.
As we all know, Alex Garland also wrote and directed EX MACHINA. I think Ex Machina works quite well as a film and as a screenplay; but it has one fundamental issue: the android (Ava, played by Alicia Vikander) survives, and the human (Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson) is left imprisoned. It is Caleb that we, as human audiences, relate to and root for if we can, not androids.
If a film works, its audience will ‘become’ the film’s human protagonist and experience the world of the story vicariously through that human protagonist’s experiences. Ex Machina, therefore, left the audience imprisoned and hopeless, and let the android escape. A mechanical protagonist is a fundamental error/risk (one made also by BLADE RUNNER 2049, in which the protagonist [Ryan Gosling] was an android).
Otherwise Ex Machina has a hell of a lot going for it. Otherwise it’s smart, and looks good. It's cool. Ex Macina suggests that Alex Garland is smart. I’m sure that in many ways he is much smarter than me.
So what, we must ask, happened with Annihilation?
Perhaps there was no script when the film started shooting (it happens a lot; it happened on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT). If we assume that there was a locked script in existence before Annihilation started shooting, why was it so riddled with issues it could be used to strain Robert McKee’s soul? I have no answers.
Why was this film called Annihilation? Who (that we care about) was annihilated, and why? And why does Lena (Portman) go into the Shimmer with companions who aren’t equipped or experienced to survive extreme hostility, when countless special forces personnel have gone into the Shimmer and (bar one) never returned?
Why does Lena’s love interest Kane (as in Abel – geddit?) survive the Shimmer and return? Why does Lena therefore go into the Shimmer when her lover doesn’t need rescuing? If Kane was still missing in the Shimmer, perhaps Lena might have gone rogue and gone in after him, and needed rescuing herself? That would be a plot.
Why are there flashbacks and flash-forwards (often a risk because fluid timelines can be confusing, Mr Nolan) that show us that Lena survives the Simmer, thus entirely removing concern for her character’s survival, aka: care, aka: peril, aka: tension, aka: audience involvement?
Why does Lena have sex with ‘Daniel’ (David Gyassi), when this shows a lack of emotional focus on Kane (who is, surely, the reason she goes into the Shimmer)? Kane should be her alpha and her omega. This passion would be her motivation for action (we could all relate to it).
Why would the seemingly apathy drugged, destructive, bland, and remarkably uninteresting character Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leave the relative safety of the elevated platform on which the characters rest for the night, and go down into a field and set up a torch to attract any danger lurking out there in the undergrowth (which duly turns up, duh)? Go figure.
We also find out that all the members of the task force that go into the Shimmer with Lena are ‘damaged goods.’ Does this seem somewhat cliched to you? Worse, we are told this as Lena and ‘Cass' (Tuva Novotny) go for what seems like a pleasure park paddle in a lake that presents zero threat to them (have no fear – a plastic, theme park alligator will soon arrive to do ... erm … nothing).
Overall, tension and beats are very thin on a Shimmer ground strewn with what seem to be the doodling of set designers that lack a common understanding or agenda. At times, all traces of the Shimmer disappear (budget issues? Tea break?), and the characters seem to be out walking in a Sunday afternoon in the park.
Such issues go on.
I think an-all female task force, however PC, removes the gender dynamic, which would have enriched the character interplay. Diversity rocks, remember? The difference between people. People are different for many reasons. Gender is one of them. But let’s not digress.
All these issues have been talked about and many other questions have been asked about this film by many others; so I won’t go on. I only refer to these issues so that we can identify the wrong things to do when we are writing a screenplay - and try to do better.
Yes, screenwriting ‘rules’ are meant to be played with; but there are good ways to do this and bad ways. The fundamentals screenwriting ‘rules’ that the likes of McKee, John Truby et al teach aspiring screenwriters work well and for good reason; and film makers ignore them at their (investors’) peril. Would that peril had played even a bit-part in Annihilation. Or logic.