10:00 am EST, February 26, 2018

‘Annihilation’ and the power of pure visual storytelling

Alex Garland’s new film Annihilation delivers a wildly ambitious and visually stunning final act, one almost completely devoid of dialogue. It demonstrates the unmatched strength of nonverbal storytelling, a fundamental characteristic of the medium for over 100 years.

Adapted from a book of the same name, Annihilation follows a group of scientists venturing inside a mysterious force named “the Shimmer” in an attempt to recover lost soldiers and discover the truth about what lies inside. However, Garland’s adaptation is by no means a strict copy of the original novel.

Those familiar with the novel should expect to see a much different story than what author Jeff VanderMeer first wrote. Garland leans away from the more plot-oriented arc of VanderMeer’s novel and replaces it with a visceral visual spectacle, the likes of which are not often seen in studio films of this size. For those that haven’t seen it yet, stop reading and run – don’t walk – to the nearest theater!

In the final act of the film, Lena (Natalie Portman) ventures alone to lighthouse at the center of “Area X” – the area surrounded by the Shimmer. Lena enters the lighthouse, discovering a burnt up corpse, an idle video camera, and a hole in the floor. After entering the hole in the floor, Lena encounters Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who tells Lena that the Shimmer is unstoppable and will continue to expand, annihilating everything in its path.

This is the only dialogue present in the entire climax and it’s delivered just seconds before Dr. Ventress transforms into a humanoid entity that mimics Lena’s every move. Lena proceeds to battle the entity, using another grenade to light it on fire so she can escape – but not before the humanoid transforms into Lena’s own doppelganger.

Lena’s choice to descend through the rabbit hole emulates the audience’s own desire for answers, Aware of this, Garland chooses to subvert expectations by pivoting away from answers, instead delivering greater, more complicated questions.

It’s only after Lena exits back through the rabbit hole and battles against the humanoid figure that the film is able to articulate answers through visual expression rather than verbal explanations. Lena perceives the humanoid figure as an enemy, a physical incarnation of the alien force that inhabits the Shimmer. As such, she tries desperately to kill it.

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However, the way the humanoid mimics and mirrors Lena, not only makes it difficult to defeat, but serves to articulate the very nature of the Shimmer itself. The Shimmer cannot be defeated because it is, quite simply, an adaptation of the life it encounters. In fighting against it, Lena only gets closer to it.

After she uses a phosphorus grenade to blow up the humanoid figure, it transforms into a figure that looks exactly like her – a doppelganger. The more energy Lena expends to resist the Shimmer, the more power she gives it. Any attempt at resisting the change and adaptation the Shimmer creates is futile; to defeat the Shimmer would be to defeat oneself.

The film understands, and visually articulates, the manner in which adaptation is the most human characteristic of all. To adapt is to survive – and in this way, the Shimmer is far more human than it is alien.

That the climax lacks a clean justification or explanation for the events of the film or the existence of the Shimmer has provoked strong reactions from audiences – with some calling Annihilation a masterpiece while others toss it aside. Regardless of how you feel about it, the pure visual spectacle showcased in the climax is part of an essential cinematic tradition that began with silent film.

While blockbusters today lean heavily on dialogue and voice over to communicate complicated plot to the audience, it hasn’t always been that way. 100 years ago, silent films were pioneering the use of the medium by telling thrilling and complicated stories without spoken dialogue. They were completely dependent upon a mastery of visual storytelling to communicate with the audience. While title cards were used sparingly to communicate essential details to the audience, these films primarily used visual cues to tell a story.

While silent films have naturally fallen to the wayside, (The Artist and The Tribe are recent examples of films that are predominantly or completely silent), visual storytelling techniques are still an essential component of the medium. All films naturally use these tools, but Annihilation joins a unique subcategory of films that employ visual storytelling techniques at essential points in the story.

Take a look at last year’s criminally underrated Wonderstruck from director Todd Haynes. The film follows two kids in New York City – one in 1927, the other in 1977 – struggling to connect with the world around them in spite of their deafness. The middle forty-minute stretch in the film passes without a single line of spoken dialogue as the kids traipse through New York City.

Haynes uses silent film techniques to craft their adventure, articulate their emotions, and engage the audience. By stripping away the spoken word, Haynes manages to draw connections between the shared qualities of the kids’ experiences, thereby demonstrating how little time actually changes the nature of human experiences.

Just two years ago, La La Land delivered a rousing epilogue that dove deep into power of romantic nostalgia. The epilogue recounts a different version of the events of the film, playing out a “what if” scenario of how the romance between Mia and Seb might’ve turned out if they had handled the obstacles between them differently. The wordless montage draws heavily from classic Hollywood musicals while maintaining a modern edge that is relevant to its story. The epilogue is far more than just an ode to the classics – it’s a visual interrogation and celebration of the film’s narrative.

Annihilation joins these recent films in holding up the power of visual storytelling. While silent films may be a thing of the past, the techniques they pioneered are still an essential component of movie making today. It’s refreshing and exciting to see such a large-scale studio film using these techniques to challenge genre conventions and audiences. There’s a lot to love about Annihilation, but Garland’s ambitious and masterful final act is arguably the most deserving of praise.

‘Annihilation’ is now playing in theaters everywhere

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