Destruction and Defiance in “Annihilation” and “A Quiet Place”

The first scene in “Annihilation” shows a college classroom viewing a cancer cell  — something that causes its host to morph and change beyond recognition. That theme is picked up through the rest of the movie, with unsettling conclusions. Based on the award-winning series of sci-fi horror novels of the same name by Jeff Vandermeer about the inability of the human mind to comprehend an alien intelligence, it was always going to be hard to depict on screen. It follows the actual plot of the book very loosely (full disclosure, I haven’t read the book), telling the story of Johns Hopkins biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) grieving the unexplained disappearance of her special forces husband Kade (Oscar Isaac) over a year prior. But suddenly he appears at her door, dazed and seemingly empty. It is unclear if he even recognizes Lena, but before she can begin to understand what’s wrong, he collapses. As they rush to the hospital, they are suddenly whisked away by an armed government force, with Lena forcibly sedated. She wakes in a facility known as the Southern Reach, a United States facility observing a section of Gulf coastline enclosed in a mysterious expanding bubble called the Shimmer. The Reach has tried everything — drones, vehicles, military teams — but nothing comes back out, and no communication penetrates the Shimmer. That is, until whatever is left of Kane emerges. Lena, still grief-stricken and confused over what happened to Kane, is persuaded by the enigmatic Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to join her all-female team of scientists in another expedition into the Shimmer.
Once in the Shimmer, nothing is as it seems. Time jumps forwards and slows down, and it soon becomes clear that something strange and terrible is occuring in the swampy southern forest. Alligators with shark teeth and flowers that seem strangely humanoid point toward an ecosystem running on overdrive, genes constantly scrambled and rearranged towards a cacophonic crescendo. The mental state of the team is similarly deteriorating; as the movie slowly makes clear that one would have to seriously want to escape one’s own life to go on a mission like this, while the expeditions members have an apparent inability to cope with what they are facing. Strong supporting performances from Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Tessa Thompson help build the aura of paranoia and fear. And the reasons for Lena’s determination to push further and discover what happened to Kane are gradually revealed in effective flashbacks.
“Annihilation” suffers from poor pacing. The middle of the movie, while sometimes terrifying, can wallow in atmosphere instead of driving the plot forward. What become most compelling are the explorations of Lena and Ventress’s motivations for pushing towards their goal: finding the lighthouse where the Shimmer spread from. Early in the film, Ventress, a psychologist, references the human capacity for self destruction. While the disturbing wildlife of the Shimmer could be read as a metaphor for the costs of environmental disaster which humans have barely begun to reckon with, the main thrust of the film is more personal. In the almost inexplicable final half hour, Lena discovers the source of the Shimmer and  what happened to Kade. It is the scariest use of special effects I have seen in years, not in a conventional horror way, but in how it awes you with its strangeness. The slow destruction of the identities of Ventress, Lena, Kade, and the rest evoke the horror of personal change, of gradually and unwillingly becoming a person you barely recognize, face to face with your own annihilation.
John Krasinski’s directing debut, “A Quiet Place,” is not nearly as high concept as “Annihilation,” but has a few gimmicks, as well as political baggage, that make it interesting. On the one hand, it’s simply an entertaining monster film. Lean and quickly paced, it follows the struggle of a family to survive in a world where speaking aloud, crunching leaves underfoot, or rolling dice can bring certain death. The monsters, you see, are blind but possessed with astonishing hearing. Grotesque, massive eardrums allow them to instantly zero in on noise from miles away and attack relentlessly. Opening with the death of Lee (Krasinski) and Evelyn Abbot’s (Emily Blunt) youngest son after he plays with a noisy toy space shuttle, the main conflict is Evelyn’s pregnancy and the efforts of the Abbotts to keep a (noisy) baby safe in their world.
The main achievements of the film are the inventive set and sound design. The family can’t use plates (they clink), must walk on trails made of sand (leaves crunch), and play Monopoly with felt pieces (in this film, the top hat and the steamboat are agents of death). Dreamy, light-filled cinematography shows the beauty and fragility of the life the Abbots have carved out. And the bare soundtrack leaves plenty of space for the tension built into the film’s premise: the constant fear of ordinary, previously safe sounds that now lead to violent death. The structure of the Abbot’s world has changed, not beyond sanity or recognition like it does for Lena, but enough that the basic framework of ordinary home life is irreparably altered.
On the other hand, “A Quiet Place” is interesting because of what people are reading into it. According to Krasinki, it was conceived as a simple metaphor for him and his wife’s (who is Emily Blunt on and off-screen) love for their children and the fear and determination to protect that come with parenting. Undeterred, voices on the left and right have seen something else in the movie. The New Yorker’s always-baffling Richard Brody criticizes “A Quiet Place” for its “regressive politics” of a white, gun-toting rural family battling against dark monsters who stifle their speech. And the hilariously contrarian Armond White of Out and National Review lauds its “pro-gun and pro-life themes,” as well as what he sees as representation of Hollywood culture of outrage and censorship. Personally, the cultural issue that I found most intriguing was whether Krasinski could ever escape his role as Jim in The Office. In retrospect, obviously not.
Anyways, I highly doubt that John Krasinski, of all people, meant to make a conservative political critique in this film. If you choose to see it as a reactionary stand against progressives, then do so, though I think that takes jumping through more than a few mental hoops. And if you choose to see a family deciding to bring life into a difficult and dangerous existence as pro-life, you’re probably right in the broadest sense. But this is a horror movie, first and foremost. The main reactions should be screaming and flinching, not political takes.
The sci-fi horrors of both movies are refreshing and original contributions to the dead space between awards season and summer movies. Both show humans struggling to grapple with a radical shift in their reality. In one the threat is literally on a cellular level and inescapable; in the other the terror comes from more conventional monsters. “Annihilation” will leave you chewing over its ending and trying to shake pervasive unease — “A Quiet Place” leaves you with an immensely satisfying final shot after a solid 100 minutes of scares.

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