The Horrible, Beautiful Sound Of Annihilation

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Natalie Portman in Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018), by Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Before Alex Garland’s mysterious new sci-fi film Annihilation came out this weekend, many people had fixated on a very particular detail in the film’s original trailer.

It was four notes.

People in the comments underneath the trailer called it “the sound,” or “the effect,” but it really is just a melody: four notes that for some reason people have been responding to in funny and curious ways. Co-composer Ben Salisbury was even interviewed about the unnerving melody, and he said that it was the only part of the original soundtrack that made it into the trailer.

On the full soundtrack you can hear that it is actually seven notes – a four note melody, a pause, and an unnaturally low, three note response. The full track in particular is weirdly affecting, especially in the theater: the vibration of monolithic bass, the shimmering synth – and those ponderous, tumbling notes of distorted alien brass. It’s less like a song and more like a melody falling into a void. When pressed about what to call this particular motif, Salisbury called it “the demon opera theme.” It is a fittingly hypnotic motif for a movie that is designed to make us question everything.


Annihilation is based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, and its main subject is Lena, a biologist and professor played by Natalie Portman. She is intelligent and resolute, but she is haunted by the specter of tragedy following the disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared during a classified military mission 12 months ago. That is, until the day he returns quite suddenly, and doesn’t remember a thing about the mission or how he got back.

As it turns out, he was one part of a team that went into an inexplicable natural phenomenon that has been deemed “The Shimmer.” No one who has gone into The Shimmer has returned, until Kane, and he goes violently into a coma shortly after. A five-woman team is assembled to head into The Shimmer: a biologist (Natalie Portman), a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny). Where trained soldiers have failed, the government hopes that a team of scientists might succeed.

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The female-centric cast of Annihilation has received backlash from sexist male moviegoers clinging to misogynist tradition. Source: Annihilation (2018) by Paramount Studios and Skydance.

Annihilation’s writer and director Alex Garland is best known for his 2014 sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, which he also wrote and directed. He also wrote the screenplay for 28 Days Later, Dredd, and Sunshine, as well as the novel The Beach (Danny Boyle directed the film adaptation). Garland has expressed disappointment over the fact that his newest film will only make it into theaters in three countries – China, Canada and the U.S.A. Less than stellar test screenings and some creative differences with the executive producer have led to the film skipping most international theaters on its way to streaming on Netflix, a way for distributor Paramount to hedge its bets on a movie it thinks too strange and “complicated” for audiences. This is a real shame considering Annihilation is a film best seen and heard on the big screen.

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The dangers faced by the women in Annihilation are as profoundly psychological as they are terrifyingly physical. Source: Annihilation (2018) by Paramount Studios and Skydance.

The fact that Garland and his producer Scott Rudin won this creative battle through final cut rights is good news for moviegoers, because here is that “originality” that so many movie fans have mourned as dead in Hollywood. This part horror, part sci-fi thriller is as ambitious as it is beautiful, both narratively and visually. It spends the main part of its runtime raising questions that seem unanswerable, yet manages somehow to answer just the right amount of those questions while leaving enough mystery to haunt you after it is over.

There is a probing curiosity at the heart of this film, one which makes us think in surprising ways about genetics, human psychology and our place in the universe. Its increasingly surreal world is like a beautiful and horrific Alice in Wonderland – its obscene beauty gnaws away at our sense of comfort and normalcy through patient pacing, incredible art design and that powerful original score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The score itself uses space and minimalism in a way that enhances the dreamlike story, until the film’s breathless final act demands something powerful and floor-shaking.

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Director and writer Alex Garland says he purposefully did not re-read the film’s source material, to make the movie feel “like a dream of the book.” Source: Annihilation (2018) by Paramount Studios and Skydance.

Studies have shown that music can change the way we perceive the world, and I can’t help but think of this as I hum that four note phrase again, days after I watched this film. There is something parasitic about the motif, as if my own moods and perceptions are being subtly refracted, even if I’m not always aware of it. This shifting of perceptions is the power of film as well as music, and in this case the two come together to make something strange and thought-provoking and memorable.

Some movies are fun to watch but don’t hold up well to closer examination (see Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and then there are movies like this one. They leave you feeling challenged and bewildered, but their impact persists and even grows after the film is over. Ex Machina had the same lingering aftereffects – the sign of a film not content to rest on entertainment value alone. Leaving the theater after Annihilation I felt a bit like Natalie Portman’s Lena: I wasn’t sure what just happened, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t the same.


Black Panther: The Hero We Need Right Now

Marvel’s Black Panther opened this past weekend to the tune of a monster $235 million opening weekend box office pull, good for fifth highest of all time. It is riding a massive wave of pre-release hype, positive reviews, a chart-topping Kendrick Lamar original soundtrack, and most importantly a cultural sense that here, finally, is a superhero movie that has been long overdue.

Black Panther the hero first appeared in a 1966 Fantastic Four comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the same year that James Meredith was shot during his “Walk Against Fear” in Mississippi. It was the same year that Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael made “Black Power” a slogan for a modern civil rights movement. Spoiler alert: in the ensuing half century we have not defeated racism. Great strides in civil rights have been hard earned since then, but the overarching issue of systemic racism in the courts and streets of this country are as complicated as ever.

As recently as 2013, a new slogan and movement arose as a reaction to the murder of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of his slayer George Zimmerman. #BlackLivesMatter was born out of the shared sorrow and rage over the simple fact that this country has never cared about the lives of black people. On movie screens black people have been, at best, tokens. At worst, they have been wild-eyed archetypes of savage otherness. Off the movie screens they have been forgotten by the school systems, marginalized by politicians, and murdered by law enforcement.

Black Lives Matter by xddorox, on Flickr
Source: “Black Lives Matter” (CC BY 2.0) by xddorox

I don’t apologize for being political, because politics touches every aspect of our lives. The arts have always been political, and anyone who claims otherwise either has an agenda or has fallen victim to someone else’s. We are living in a time when the discrimination and widespread incarceration of black folks is as problematic as ever, and the President of the United States goes out of his way to defend white nationalists and sexual predators while broadly attacking minorities and immigrants. “America First” and MAGA have become the de facto mottos of racism and xenophobia in the USA, an obtuse and deeply troubling reaction to shifting demographics and a perceived sense of endangerment to the white patriarchy. I would argue that these days, it is irresponsible to be apolitical.

And now here is Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, starring Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, newly crowned King of the African country of Wakanda. While Wesley Snipes’ Blade gave moviegoers a kickass black Marvel superhero in 1998, Black Panther marks the first time that a black hero has gotten a feature film in the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not only that, but it is a dominantly black cast, directed by a young black filmmaker who showed what he was capable of with his gripping and racially charged debut feature Fruitvale Station. Fault Disney and Marvel for plenty of things, but they picked the right guy to helm their movie.

Ryan Coogler by Gage Skidmore, on Flickr
Director Ryan Coogler, who previously directed Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015). Source: “Ryan Coogler” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Gage Skidmore

The stellar cast gives much-needed positive representation to both women and black people, two demographics pathetically underserved by Hollywood. It would have been a bitter irony indeed if Black Panther had championed black characters while simultaneously depicting an all-too-common regressive depiction of women. Instead, the heart of the cast is made up of Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and the inimitable Angela Bassett – female characters who are as brilliant as they are strong. T’Challa may be the King of Wakanda, but it is the women who keep the kingdom running.

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The fierce Dora Milaje “Adored Ones,” Source: Black Panther (2018) by Marvel Studios

All of this would have been for nothing if the movie had sucked. Director Coogler has said that his priority in making Black Panther was first and foremost to make a good movie. We are able to talk about its meaningful cultural impact because it works as a film: it is action-packed while thoughtfully tackling important issues, it is shrewdly cast and well-acted, and the movie in general is gorgeous.

Speaking of casting, it would be wrong to write about Black Panther without mentioning Michael B. Jordan’s role as Erik Killmonger. Jordan elicits more sympathy as the villain in this movie than some superheroes do as protagonists in their own films. Killmonger is far from the old school archetype of evil: his grief and fury are understandable responses to the injustices of a world that never cared about him, or people like him. I had a strange but not unwelcome ambivalence throughout the film because it was impossible to outright dislike him, or even disagree with much of what he was saying. He is the villain not because of his rage over global black suppression, but because he would use imperialism and violence to turn the tables. His is a deeply tragic character, and perhaps the finest illustration of the script’s narrative savvy

It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to pump the brakes for a moment. Black Panther is not going to save the world. Black Panther is not going to stop cops from killing black kids. In fact it’s dangerous to imply that it even could. Of course a single movie cannot right the pervasive wrongs of our society, just like Obama’s election could not eradicate racism. At the end of the day it is another superhero movie, just one feature in Marvel’s multi-wave plan for cinematic domination.

But it is a step in the right direction, if only because black boys and girls can go to the movie theater and find role models that look like them, characters with strength and depth and wit. Women that go to movies normally dominated by white male action heroes can see a host of strong and intelligent female characters with range and nuance. White audiences can experience what it feels like to be a token. An antagonist can be someone who channels the rage of a whole people, while inciting thoughtful debate about the methodology of liberation. Yes, you can call it “just” another superhero movie. But it captures the zeitgeist of our culture at what seems like just the right time, and that makes it feel like something more.