I just saw Annihilation and, I must profess, I didn’t like it very much — except for the last fifteen minutes or so, and the bear. Aside from those parts, though, it made me think again about the problem of pretension in media.
Let me be clear: my criticism is not against media trying to ‘be smart’, or media that makes the viewer work to analyze what it media means. Not at all. I value media trying to say something more than anything else. In fact, I would even argue that it is even more important for a movie to try to say something than it is for it to entertain.
For instance, if being entertaining was the primary objective of media, The Room would be a fantastic movie. We can say that The Room is a terrible movie while also being entertained by it, so we need to understand what other criteria we are thinking about when we call a movie ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
There is a specific danger of pretension though, of appearing ‘smarter’ than the ideas in your media actually deliver. Annihilation, I find, is guilty of this. The danger is that when your meaning isn’t clear, when your story isn’t well delivered, the criticism doesn’t get directed at the work; It makes your audience feel like they simply weren’t smart enough to understand it, that it went above their head.
A symptom of this is, strangely, a certain style of debate about the analysis of your movie. In a well-constructed movie, ideas about what something means are tied back to elements of the movie as evidence. Movies that fall into the pitfall of pretension — or the kind I have roughly laid out in my mind — are more about explaining what a scene had to mean by tying ideas to it. Think about the debate about the spinning top in Inception; they focus on trying to debate what scenes were actually trying to say first before they can work out what they actually meant.
Consider this transcript of an analysis of Stanley Kubric’s “Full Metal Jacket” http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0093.html Spoilers, obviously. I was transfixed by this; Not only are the ideas put forth here genuinely interesting, but you can understand these conclusions by watching the movie and, of course, they aren’t remotely stretching. Kubric was an absolute perfectionist, and a raving madman of the most artistic variety. Every small detail is deliberate in some way.
But why did he make these deliberate choices? There is strong debate about what he is trying to say, and how he’s trying to say it. However, these are focused on the deeper meanings behind scenes, inferred parallels, subtleties. The superficial meanings of these scenes are taken for granted as clear.
For example, there is a very obvious disconnect of the first half and the second half of the movie. The first half is all about ‘making killers’, of marine training and of Gomer Pyle. The second half takes place in Vietnam proper, and is about the miserable reality of the war and of Animal Mother.
The narrative is understood clearly, and all of its moments are easily ‘read’. There is no doubt in the audience’s mind at any time as to who’s doing what. Events are clear, characters are strongly defined and everything follows a deliberate, telegraphed logic.
The analysis, then, is left to the significance of those events. How women, throughout the movie, are purely objectified and displayed as sex receptacles, as things to be conquered and bred. Then, finally at the end of the movie, the most terrifying, pants-shitting enemy to be overcome is a young female sniper.
You can see deeper themes inferred: the repeating of ‘The marines want killers, not robots’ is echoed poignantly by the drill sergeant’s last words before Lawrence shoots him; “What is your major malfunction?”. Lawrence denying his orders and murdering him becomes a clear reinforcement of this idea in an interesting way. That we see Animal Mother later mirror Lawrence in so many ways, in silhouette, is no accident, and further ideas can be drawn from this.
You see broader themes of duality, echoed by lines in the movie like ‘that Jungian thing’, especially in how the movie itself folds in half. On how the first half is all about empowering and a feeling of superiority and invincibility, and how the second half is such a broad and searing indictment of the ideas it builds up in that first half.
You can reach your own conclusions on that, but the point is, when a movie is well crafted and well thought out, watching it is simple and the analysis is complex. The more you understand about it, the more questions you think to ask. All throughout there’s this solid bedrock of understanding what you’ve actually watched, knowing what’s happened. Understanding who did what, then figuring out why.
Movies like Annihilation are different, because the analysis is forced to start at trying to understand what even happened at the most superficial level.
The ending of Annihilation is trippy as hell, and my favourite part of the movie. Most of the movie’s most interesting ideas are set up and executed in these last moments. What do they actually mean, though? The movie begs you to think hard on it, on the significance of it, but so much of it you’re forced to extrapolate on your own. Because the movie doesn’t give you enough to work with in the first place.
At the start of the movie, the protagonist's husband comes home after a long mission to investigate a strange meteorite, then almost immediately dies. So she goes to find out what happened to him, to save him.
Inside the 'bubble' the film takes place in you progressively get more dementia-addled, with a side order of Alzheimers. At the center of the incident we find a camera pointed at a charred spot on the wall. The camera shows the protagonist's husband having a conversation with himself; "Are you me, or am I me? I guess it doesn't matter." At which point he pulls a pin on a phosphorous grenade and kills himself. A clone of him walks from behind the camera in confusion.
An oil-slick CGI robot thing comes out of the meteorite and starts mimicking and copying the protagonist. So she pulls a pin from a grenade, gives it to the clone like a gift, then runs. The clone bursts into flame and starts using its fire to burn the meteorite structure, thus popping the bubble and saving humanity.
Then, at the end, when she hugs her husband who is no longer sick, she asks him if it's really him. And he says "I don't think so" and they hug. But a big point of the footage we saw is that he wouldn't know.
Is it the dementia-addled husband at the end of the movie, or his clone? If it’s his clone, that means he killed himself. Why? Well, the movie has the idea that anything that doesn’t have self-destructive tendencies is essentially cancer, self-replicating without end. The higher life form just mindlessly replicates what it sees. So the husband attempts to teach it suicide, self-destruction.
Why didn't he just try to kill it? Because maybe if it was learning, if he failed it'd have learned how to kill, and teaching it to kill would be bad.
Those are interesting ideas! Probably. Little of these conclusions are made explicit, few of these intentions are in the media itself. In fact, even the conclusion that this was him is tenuous. It’s unclear if it’s him that committed suicide, or his clone, simply because the next time we see a clone, it’s bursting another person and there's a weird galactic eye thing, and... why did any of this happen, again? What did any of that mean?
Why were there more than one of these things, and when did it happen? Why did the first one wander out of the bubble as a clone of the male love interest, but the second one stayed behind? What was the inciting action? Are they separate, or do they share memories since they appear to be psychic, or…?
If you haven’t seen the movie, this isn’t shown, and it’s hardly hinted at but they feel like important questions. My point is more that because it isn’t clear in the watching it undermines the ability to actually draw conclusions about its philosophy, its deeper ideas.
How can you draw a deeper meaning from the puzzle if the pieces are intentionally hidden from you?
The most glaring example of this meaningless obtusiveness I can think of from Annihilation is the woman that cut herself to feel more alive. Her 'death' is giving a short speech about the nature of the phenomenon making everything part of everything else, walking off screen, and never being seen again despite only being out of site for a literal, non-hyperbolic second.
A friend of mine made a very interesting conclusion from this scene: it was was willingly giving in, a sort of living-suicide, and she became part of the natural environment. We aren’t shown this process because it’s meant to be happy, as opposed to the horror of the other entities of the bubble.
The cleverness of his explanation makes me fully believe it was the intention behind the scene. However, it’s hard to rectify with what’s actually shown; We aren’t shown her as part of the environment. She walks off frame for a second, and isn’t there when the protagonist follows her a moment later. The rest of the movie shows a transformation like this taking hours, if not weeks, not the seconds she’s offscreen for, and it doesn't show the end results either.
And what’s most unforgivable is that I can think of a simple way to achieve that described intent. She gives the same speech, the same philosophy before her walk off, but instead takes first watch, sitting in a position of calm and zen. When the next person comes to take watch, hours later, she’s unmoved and now made of plant. She still looks peaceful and happy, as opposed to the grim horror of the other hybrids.
What it comes down to is that ambiguity, coyness, kills. There’s this strange reasoning that making the audience ‘work for it’ is a good thing, that it allows a wider breadth of meanings to be interpreted. I disagree strongly. I think that ambiguity forces so much thought to be expended on what was trying to be said that it distracts from wondering what it is that you meant by saying it. And it doesn’t give that platform of confidence to build on to figure out those deeper ideas.
I think a fantastic example of this is Inception. As I said, a question is asked of the audience at the end; Does the top fall or not? And, with deep enough analysis of the movie, it seems pretty certain that yes, it does in fact fall. A lot of attention was put into hinting at this, from props to costuming to casting. There’s also the fact that the protagonist’s totem was never the top, but his wedding ring.
So, why spin the top at the end? Why not show it fall? It’s because it’s trying to ask the audience; What does this mean? Is this real or not?
It stays with you. It sticks in your mind; the idea of whether it’s real or not is an interesting question. However, I argue it’s to the movie’s detriment. By not taking a stance on the meaning of its ending, by trying to have it both ways, by intentionally avoiding that conclusion, you undermine what conclusions can be derived from it — from the significance of what it means to choose reality over dreams, fantasy and escapism.
By making the debate focused so much on if it falls or not, you draw the entire discussion of the movie down to those last thirty seconds, and trying to justify your theory.
That means the rest of the movie is used to explain the ending. The ending isn’t used to explain the rest of the movie. The conclusion should represent the synthesis of the ideas you’ve set up, the ideas you’ve put forward in the movie. Inception has a lot of them; of fantasy, of dreams, of denial, the nature of truth and belief, of self-knowledge, of perception…
What Cobb returning to his children means to say about those ideas is swept aside for the question—is it real?
It’s been said of politics that the best way to keep people in line is to allow very lively debate, but within a very narrow spectrum. So too do I feel like this can be true of media analysis, and the popularity of Film/Game Theorist channels. (But that’s just a theory…)
Intensity of debate, wide speculation, is not indicative of the healthiness or depth of that analysis, nor is it inherently a compliment of the work it is attached to. Sometimes it exists only because you forgot to explain what you meant.
I keep saying media, instead of just movies, because this still holds absolutely true in literature. Years ago there was an article published by the Atlantic titled “The Reader’s Manifesto” and it’s been one of the most profoundly impactful things that has influenced me as an author. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/07/a-readers-manifesto/302270/
So let’s talk about how this approach harms authors in a way that makes them feel above the criticism for doing so.
One author I called up for on this. We were talking about the nature of pretension in media, because it’s something that they were famous for themselves, much to their chagrin.
A bet was made that they’d make an essay, of sorts, on being seen as pretentious if I could read their latest story and not truly believe that what others called ‘pretense’ was serving to make the story more intellectual. My response coming out of it, quoted from chatlogs:
Goddamn I come out of this with the impression you were genuinely afraid of being interpreted clearly
You write in a way that is very obviously meant to show off your cleverness, and so when people see those holes in your story they don't think "what's wrong with this" they think "why was I not smart enough to get this"
Which is why you see the kinds of interpretation arguments in your comments sections that you do
It doesn't mean you've written something profound
It means you've forgotten to write a huge chunk of the damn thing
And so the essay was written! It starts as such:
"Pretentious" stories say less. They use dramatic language that actually conveys very little information, so the reader has to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. They're meant to be interpreted. They're about something other than what is literally in the story. They're a towering riddle of clever language and veiled implications that the reader has to decipher before they're allowed to know what the story is actually about.
Immediately we agree; These stories convey less information intentionally, to leave events of the story itself open to interpretation.
I found this worth pointing out to reinforce what I’m saying; the decision is willful on the creator’s part, and reflects a deliberate decision at their philosophical level.
This hurts any creator who is trying to make a statement with their work. The author here, for instance, wanted their work to reflect surveillance and the effects of helicopter parenting. His first scene involves the teenage character having a somewhat surreal schizophrenic episode and nearly beat someone to death because they were nice to them.
As a result, if they were actually trying to convey that intended point, this scene undermines the entire premise. The character is shown to be dangerously unstable, and has been for a long time. It heavily implies that the surveillance and monitoring happened because of this, not caused it, especially from the order of events the story shows.
The response is, then; “But that’s okay, that’s just Death of the Author, the story still works if you got meaning out of it”.
So we get to the end of the story, where there is a scene that is obvious to everyone that it’s non-consensual, coerced sex. This is obvious to everyone but the author, I should say.
The response here is; “This isn’t really what I was trying to say, but that’s an interesting interpretation, so I did a good thing”.
Here we see something very significant; Because the author isn’t putting intentionality on his work, by making it so open to interpretation, the end desire is for the work to be interpreted. Something “that the reader has to decipher before they're allowed to know what the story is actually about” in his words.
However, the end result is a work that failed to communicate what the author wanted, and succeeded in making some strong statements about consent which the author didn’t intend, which is kind of a horribly dangerous fire to play with (See: Hazardous Materials blog)
The other author also said this in his piece:
Some stories are meant to be a fun, rollicking adventure[…], and some stories are meant to help you grow as a person. And honestly, it shouldn't be a shock that the second kind of story requires a bit of effort to get through.
Here we see something that you’ll commonly see in defense of movies like Annihilation when fans claim a movie is ‘too smart’ for a mainstream audience; Any story should take effort to get through.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is utter bullshit.
The problems with this approach are twofold: first, it severely limits your audience. Second, it makes a false dichotomy, implying that those two things are mutually exclusive.
Take, for instance, Zootopia. Zootopia is one of the smartest, most well-constructed and well-scripted movies ever made. As an example, the movie’s usage of the recording carrot pen. The first time it’s used is a brilliant sight-gag — catching Nick with his own words. The second time it’s used is a brilliant callback — reuniting Nick and Judy to play an apology back. Most movies would stop there, and I thought that alone was a very nice touch.
The movie then ends with a third beat of this joke when that pen’s used on the revealed antagonist. I was totally not expecting that. As a writer, when I see the ‘brick’ in a brick joke land like that, I mentally write it out of the movie as having served its purpose. That extra note, that final use of it in such an unexpected way, was such a small touch that absolutely blew me away with the brilliance of the writers.
It’s such a small thing to have stuck with me, but it was so elegantly done. It was polished. I haven’t actually watched Zootopia more than once, and that’s to its credit: Even now, 2 years later, I remember it that clearly.
Zootopia was comedic, it was action packed, it was intended for children. All things that discredit it from being capable of ‘causing personal growth’ under the claimed dichotomy. If it’s intended for children, how can it require the level of effort needed to commit to personal growth?
But Zootopia had very interesting, very honest discussions about the nature of discrimination. It was frank and honest and it approached the subject in animal metaphors that made complete sense in-universe — of course ‘prey’ animals would feel threatened by predators. And, if they’re the minority, why wouldn’t it make sense to muzzle them when they were a threat?
Of course predators would feel and lash out against this discrimination. They weren’t doing anything wrong, of course they weren’t. And others’ rights were being put above theirs for something they didn’t do.
It shows why the police can be good people and still do bad things, or oppress a minority on behalf of a majority. It shows why the police should still ultimately be seen as a force for good, but we still need to be careful about how we use them.
It dissects the reasons and motivations of both sides in all these situations, brilliantly. Impressively to me as well was the fact that the movie even ends with Judy and Nick still affectionately referring to each other with obvious slurs; It’s an acknowledgement that it’s not enough to be ‘race blind’, but to speak of an awareness of other people’s prejudices and an internalization of the judgements of the society you’re in.
If that seems like it’s looking too far into it, consider why the movie about discrimination ends with them still making ‘racist’ jokes at each other, instead of the personal growth of their arcs being that they learn it’s not okay to say those things.
And there again we see what we mean when I say that analysis thrives on rock-solid details. That’s the kind of observation you can only make when a piece of media is consistent and clear all throughout. It makes the results of your decisions shine through with purpose.
Fans of Annihilation say that the movie is simply too slow and too smart for a mainstream audience, and that’s what dooms the movie. This renders it immune to the criticism that it’s slow because it doesn’t interweave character moments and plot moments but keeps the two seperate, which would have made the movie denser and more engaging as well as reinforcing both elements — the responses are that it’s atmospheric, it’s cerebral, it’s giving you time to think about how profound it is.
The arguments that it seems smart simply because it obfuscates any of what it means is met with the notion that you just need to think harder about it, a movie can’t be expected “to spoon feed you”, in one person’s words. But that just means that what analysis you do get out of it has to start with arguing what you think actually happened before you can start figuring out what it means if it happened that way.
Personally, I think Annihilation just isn’t as profound as Zootopia.