This week in the Research Log, we're clocking ANNIHILATION, Alex Garland's 2018 adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy. As usual, we've watched the movie and used the Storyclock Notebook to visualize the film's structure in the form of a clock.
Let's Break It Down
- Opening Image: Meteor hits lighthouse.
- Normalcy: Lena teaches about cells. Has an awkward convo with Dan. Goes home and cries and paints her bedroom.
- Normalcy Disrupted: Kane arrives at home acting super weird and bleeding all over his water. While in an ambulance, a bunch of SWAT dudes show up and take them.
- Herald: Lena wakes up in Area X and meets weird Dr. Ventress. Weird Dr. Ventress shows Lena the Shimmer.
- Rational Approach: Lena walks around the compound looking confused and sad for a bit.
- Acceptance and Break Into Act 2: She meets the team that's going into the Shimmer. She wants to go. She "owes" Kane something for some reason that probably we're going to find out. They all enter the Shimmer.
- B Story Begins: Flashback to romance times. But not with Kane -- with Dan!
- Trailer Moments/Promise of the Premise: They wake up in tents, None of them remember setting up camp but, based on rations, they've been there for a few days. They find a swamp hut. There's a huge gator in it that tries to eat Josie. Turns out this gator's got all kinds of weird teeth stuff happening. They find an old base where the previous team set up camp. They find a video the last team left behind. Kane is on it, and he's cutting open a dude and showing his moving insides. Weird Dr. Ventress finds the pool in the next room where this video was recorded. Stomach dude looks like he exploded like a Lovecraft-themed piñata.
- Midpoint: Flashback to a sad goodbye before Kane left for his mission. Why was it a sad goodbye? We'll have to find out.
- Things Get Worse: A bear shows up in the middle of the night and takes Sheppard. That sucks because we liked her. Weird Dr. Ventress insists on pressing on to the lighthouse (establishing our goal destination for the second half of the film). Cassie is starting to get frustrated and wants to turn back. Lena convinces them to keep going (by lying to them). They find a town with people plants and a house just like Lena's. Josie realizes what's going on with the Shimmer: it's a prism, and it's not just refracting light, it's also refracting DNA. This revelation is badass for the audience, but bad-actual for the characters, as Lena realizes in the middle of the night that her cells are splitting and bedazzling.
- Game Over: Flashback to romance times with Dan again, only this time we see the conversation that follows. Turns out her relationship with Dan was going on while she was still with Kane. Apparently Kane had found out, and we're to assume that's why he went into the Shimmer -- hence Lena's crippling guilt and self-destruction. Meanwhile Cassie and loses her sh** and ties the team to chairs. She's discovered Lena's Kane love locket and wants to know why Lena lied to them (just like she lied to Kane oh snap).
- Breakthrough and Rebirth/Break Into Act 3: The screaming nightmare Bear (NIGHTBEAR™️?) shows up and kills Cassie. Josie is able to get loose and kill the Nightbear™️. Weird Dr. Ventress says screw this I'm going to the lighthouse now. Josie becomes a plant. Lena heads to the lighthouse.
- Hero Gains Upper Hand: Lena makes it to the lighthouse.
- Shadow's Final Push: She finds and watches a video in which normal Kane blows himself up and Shimmer Kane operates the camera, uses hair gel, and doesn't explode. Lena descends into the crater and finds Weird Dr. Ventress. Weird Dr. Ventress says the title of the film and vomits rainbows. Lena's blood gets sucked into the weird thing and her cells split and Silver Surfer is created. Silver Surfer follows Lena out of the crater for a deadly game of Follow The Leader, nearly smothering Lena.
- Ultimate Breakthrough: Lena gets one of the flash grenades and blows up Silver Surfer just as it's starting to transform into a Lena clone. The lighthouse burns down, and the Shimmer dissipates.
- New Normalcy: The Hazmats are excited about this newfound awareness of aliens, and they're pleased with her story, but even more pleased that she's able to drink water without bleeding all over the glass.
- Final Image: Lena reunites with Shimmer Kane. Her eyes Shimmer. They both be Shimmering.
Stuff That Stood Out To Me
- This movie is super efficient. Other movies could have given us a "something's not right about Kane" sequence, for example, but ANNIHILATION accomplishes everything in a scene.
- Nobody starts dying until the midpoint. I thought about this, and realized that movies like this and JURASSIC PARK don't start eating and murdering people until the midpoint. This is similar to what I talked about in my SIGNS Research Log about most horror movies having four acts:
- Horror Act 1: Things are normal.
- Horror Act 2: Something weird might be going on.
- Horror Act 3: Something weird is definitely going on, what are we going to do about it?
- Horror Act 4: Doing something about it.
- Symmetrical Moments: Lena teaches about how cells split + Lena's cells split.
- Symmetrical Moments: The flashbacks and hazmat scenes fall pretty evenly across the story, usually serving as chapter breaks and bookends.
- Symmetrical Moments: Kane's glass of water + Lena's glass of water.
This movie is super smart, super weird, super scary, and it falls into my favorite film genre, Experts Going To A Mysterious Location And Getting Attacked By Things (or EGTAMLAGABT). Because its structure is so lean and efficient, it has room to let moments and ideas breath, soaking this thing in mood and atmosphere. These kinds of movies don't require a whole lot going on, just time and space to build to the big stuff like Silver Surfers and Nightbears™️. Great lessons to take away if you're writing an EGTAMLAGABT story.
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